The Curse of the Tragic Backstory

Everyone likes a character who starts off low and manages to make something of him/herself. They might have gone through a rough childhood, but throughout the course of the book, manage to come to terms with that roughness, and become a better person because of it.

So of course, when we read about a character whose parents were killed off when s/he was a child, or about a character who had to do horrible things to survive, we empathize. We pity them. If they can survive all of that, then surely we can survive whatever small troubles we live with in our own world.

However, you’ll find that a lot of stories these days include protagonists with sad backstories. Katniss Everdeen lost her father and grew up hungry in Hunger Games. Celaena Sardothien’s parents were killed and she had to make a run for it in Throne of Glass, and the main character ultimately had to become an assassin to survive. In the Young Elites, Adelina’s mother died of a fever and her father was abusive. I’ll even use an extremely popular series as an example: Harry Potter lost his parents and had to grow up with his mentally abusive aunt and uncle (yet still managed to make it out mentally unharmed, from what we can tell).

I could go on.

The belief, it seems to be, is that readers won’t be able to root for a character who hasn’t had a tragic backstory. Now, before I go further, I will say that sometimes characters need tragic backstories in order to make the plot work. In that situation, I understand the use of orphans and teenage assassins, what have you.

My problem is with the unnecessary use of these kinds of characters. I read recently a blog post (and I unfortunately don’t remember which blog it was from) that argued the use of these characters trivializes the people who actually have to live through a similar lifestyle. It normalizes the bad behavior that results in these tragic backstories, as if hey, it’s a bad thing to do to a person, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

It’s true that real-life people who have to go through similar horrors might find strength in reading these kinds of books — again, if that character can make it through, so can I — but authors shouldn’t kid themselves. Most times, authors use the tragic backstory simply because they know it’s a good way to get people to feel something for their characters. Or, when it comes to villains, they’ll use the most tragic story they can think of to explain why the villain is capable of, say, mass murder and the like.

A simple solution to the problem is just to ask if this tragic backstory is necessary. As the blog post said, you don’t always need a tragic backstory. A character can live in a whole, unabusive family and still feel incomplete, or still feel uncertain about his/her capabilities. A character can have worry about the future even if s/he doesn’t live on the streets. A character can have regrets even if s/he hasn’t had to murder anyone to stay alive.

In fact, it can be just as interesting to see a character who thinks his/her life story is tragic, only to meet someone from much lower on the totem pole. Something that I admired about A Darker Shade of Magic is that Kell is considered part of the royal family. He thinks his life sucks until he meets Lila Bard (who, admittedly, does have a semi-tragic backstory as an orphan from the streets).

My argument isn’t that no author should include a tragic backstory. My argument is that characters don’t always need one. And if they do, authors should be very careful to research how real-life people would be affected by such events. It really goes back to my point about realistic characters. Not every person in the world has had to deal with tragedy of such large degree, and those who do don’t always come out of it stronger.

So, readers, do you agree or disagree with this train of thought?

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