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How to not do a tragic backstory?

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I've been thinking a lot on what exactly makes a good character recently and this got me thinking on tragic backstories and how cliche they've become over the years. I can't tell you how many times in games,movies,books, etc. where a character's sob story is revealed and all I can do is roll my eyes. but why is that? why do I roll my eyes at the "tragic" backstories of characters like kirito, mozu, orochimaru, Irene(asterisk war), etc.? It's something that's on my mind and I was wondering what you guys thought.

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It's usually lazy, boring and done in poor taste. Tragic backstories need a lot of nuance, and not every writer is good enough to give those stories the attention they deserve.

ESPECIALLY the tragic backstories that involve rape. Those like, need a whole different level of nuance to make them work. Yet it's a backstory that attracts many, many people who want a "dark" story.

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A tragic backstory can exist and it can be a factor in the villains motivation but the worst thing you can do is to threat said backstory as an excuse and depict the most horrible of monster as a poor innocent victim who should get be sympathized with. 

Since you mentioned Orochimaru, I think he handles his backstory pretty will. It exits, it inspired his research but its a teensy tiny part of his story and Oro barely mentions them himself. Its Tobi who's the perfect example of a bad tragic backstory since he becomes a monster just because his crush died. 

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It's hard to explain, but it musn't feel "forced" and/or used as a last minute desperate attempt to make you feel bad for a character.

If you want an example of a GOOD tragic backstory character, I would say

Spoiler

Renne Hayworth

from the Trails series.

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I dislike it when it's just a lazy device.

Particularly when it's used to explain everything wrong with someone.  Like if you have someone who is just sour to every single person they meet, have no qualms about mass murder, and are extremely selfish... all apparently because his mom spanked him or whatever.  That has barely any relation to this character's flaws, and even if it did there's no way you can convince me that this problem is the only thing that caused him to be such a shitty human being.  It's especially bad when the character is an edgelord who hates doing homework.

Or when it's only used as a tool to make the audience sympathize with the character.  As much as I do like Mozu, her backstory has practically no relevance to everything that goes on afterwards for her.  Sometimes she cries about it, but you could give her any other tragic backstory and it'd feel just as relevant.  It's like a McGuffin of tragic backstories.

It should be worked in as something relevant to the character's life after the tragedy.  Maybe the tragedy keeps coming up for them, and they need to change as a character in order to prevent a similar tragedy from happening or to simply put their mind at ease.  Or let's say a villain's whole village was destroyed (as cliche a backstory as that is), they were taken in by a knightly order or lord, and they rise up to become a tyrant that seeks to bring about order and peace in a similar vein to what Arvis seeks so as to prevent that same senseless tragedy from happening ever again.

8 minutes ago, Slumber said:

ESPECIALLY the tragic backstories that involve rape. Those like, need a whole different level of nuance to make them work. Yet it's a backstory that attracts many, many people who want a "dark" story.

Anything that has rape in it just screams angsty teenage fan-fics.

I believe a backstory that involves rape can be done well, but so often I see it in a sexist light.  It's especially bad when the author actually likes that sort of thing.  And apparently it's particularly prevalent in certain FE related... "works", from what I hear.  So frequently it's done distastefully, or is otherwise just a flimsy backstory with little relevance like I described before.

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7 minutes ago, Ertrick36 said:

Anything that has rape in it just screams angsty teenage fan-fics.

I believe a backstory that involves rape can be done well, but so often I see it in a sexist light.  It's especially bad when the author actually likes that sort of thing.  And apparently it's particularly prevalent in certain FE related... "works", from what I hear.  So frequently it's done distastefully, or is otherwise just a flimsy backstory with little relevance like I described before.

The only time off the top of my head where rape has been a huge part of a backstory that hasn't made me go "Oh, really?!" was Berserk.

Spoiler

Since it actually ties into Griffith's transformation into a Godhand, him feeling betrayed by Guts and Casca for falling in love and thinking they'd run off without him, and it's an act that has had insane consequences, only JUST THIS YEAR, 25 YEARS LATER, only actually starting to be resolved. There was a weight to it for everyone involved, it wasn't just a "Hehe, this'll make Guts mad" thing, like so many rape stories tend to boil down to. Casca did suffer more, basically being turned into a mental child over the events, and I'm sure plenty of people aren't happy about Casca going from tough action girl to helpless child over it aren't super happy, but I didn't have much a problem with it. If anything, it's made me want to see Casca get help, because I can't wait for the moment she goes all tough action girl again.

EDIT: Oh, there's also Guts' backstory where he gets raped, and that one's not quite as impactful. It's just kind of the last straw that turns Gambino into the worst father-figure Guts could have.

 

Edited by Slumber

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Personally, I'm not too big on tragic backstories because a lot of times they're used as an excuse for a character's behavior or they're a lazy attempt at creating sympathy for a character. A lot of times, characters with a tragic backstory are a "victim" of their past. They're held back because of it and don't try to learn to be better people, they just want it to justify why they won't change from how they are.

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28 minutes ago, Etrurian emperor said:

Since you mentioned Orochimaru, I think he handles his backstory pretty will. It exits, it inspired his research but its a teensy tiny part of his story and Oro barely mentions them himself. Its Tobi who's the perfect example of a bad tragic backstory since he becomes a monster just because his crush died. 

To be clear I personally don't mind Orochimaru, it's my friend that hates him and that's why I mentioned him.

 

59 minutes ago, Etrurian emperor said:

A tragic backstory can exist and it can be a factor in the villains motivation but the worst thing you can do is to threat said backstory as an excuse and depict the most horrible of monster as a poor innocent victim who should get be sympathized with. 

40 minutes ago, Ertrick36 said:

Particularly when it's used to explain everything wrong with someone.  Like if you have someone who is just sour to every single person they meet, have no qualms about mass murder, and are extremely selfish... all apparently because his mom spanked him or whatever.  That has barely any relation to this character's flaws, and even if it did there's no way you can convince me that this problem is the only thing that caused him to be such a shitty human being.

5 minutes ago, Sunwoo said:

Personally, I'm not too big on tragic backstories because a lot of times they're used as an excuse for a character's behavior or they're a lazy attempt at creating sympathy for a character. A lot of times, characters with a tragic backstory are a "victim" of their past. They're held back because of it and don't try to learn to be better people, they just want it to justify why they won't change from how they are.

While I want to agree with these statements, I kind of can't because then I'll come off as a sort of hypocrite for thinking severa is a good character. so then I ask  where do we draw the line? like what about the backstory in it of itself that makes it come off more as an excuse rather than legitimate motivation and depth. I mean two characters could have the exact same or similar backstories but one is cliche and annoying while the other is actually good. I don't know if I'm explaining myself well or not but taking an example from naruto. What makes pain's backstory good and tobi's backstory bad? I mean they're backstories are similar when you really look at it. It's never really shown but based what we know 

Spoiler

obito/tobi was a child soldier and witnessed the tragedies of war at a fairly young age so of course that mentally screw with him. Throw in the fact that he's pretty much a failure loser among the uchiha clan who are known for producing genius prodigies so it can be inferred he was outcasted pretty heavily.

Nagato is pretty similar in that he witnessed the tragedies of war at a young age and was orphaned because of war which also happened to tobi. again not sure if I'm explaining myself right but I think you get the idea.

1 hour ago, Slumber said:

It's usually lazy, boring and done in poor taste. Tragic backstories need a lot of nuance, and not every writer is good enough to give those stories the attention they deserve.

ESPECIALLY the tragic backstories that involve rape. Those like, need a whole different level of nuance to make them work. Yet it's a backstory that attracts many, many people who want a "dark" story.

I agree with this though I can't articulate as to why yet. It's really hard to explain.

 

 

 

 

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@Otts486 Short answer is quality of writing.

Longer answer is that there are a lot of factors. I don't know anything about Naruto, but even something as simple as one coming after the other could have an effect since people would feel like the writers are just recycling ideas. Other factors are how much the writer does of setting up the revelation if it comes as a later reveal. Do they have the character's actions lineup with the way the tragedy affected them prior to the revelation? Do they give hints so that when the reveal comes you go like, "Oh I get it now" rather than, "Where the hell did that come from?" On the opposite end, do they telegraph things too much so that when the revelation comes you're like, "Oh what a surprise."

If they're a protagonist, the story often has at least one plot arc being about either overcoming said thing that screwed them up or their failure to if you're going for a tragedy, to use the term loosely. If they're a villain, when the heroes find out, it should do something to affect their view of the villain in some tangible way. Do they then question how they would react to the same thing and whether they have a right to hate the villain? Do they then try to switch their mission to redeeming the villain rather than defeating?

Another thing is simply how much you like the character. If a character is likably or at least appealing in some way, you're a lot more likely to be okay with things surrounding them. On the other hand, if you dislike the character for any reason, you're much more liable to be critical of them. That could be why the one Naruto character is okay and the other isn't. For one I'm more familiar with, look at Batman. He always has the same backstory, but some interpretations are beloved (TV series and Nolan's trilogy) and others (BvS) are hated simply because the characters themselves are appealing or not.

Writing is tricky to put metrics on because it's so subjective–what works for one person could be very off-putting to someone else, but as others have mentioned, it should inform the character's actions in some way. Just my two cents, and hope that helped some. Sorry I can't give you any hard examples.

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Well the best thing I've heard about this topic was from Jim Sterling. You can't have sadness without happiness, nothing is truly tragic unless something was lost

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My favorite manga/anime Saiyuki does tragic backstories well for the four main characters because the stories explain why they are the way they are, but it also shows how they over came their past and are able to move forward. 

I have seen tragic backstories done wrong so many times and it seems to be a favorite theme for writers, so yeah I get tiered of "oh, this bad thing happened to the bad guy we have to forgive them" thing that seems to happen in a lot of stuff.  It is hard to find it done well, but if it is it can be very good.

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How not to do a tragic story? Do a happy one!

Okay, to be serious. Upon reading some of the great classic tragedies in literature (Shakespeare, Dumas, Hugo would be my go to examples), I've come to the conclusion that there's two types of tragedy in fiction. The Cautionary Tale and the Conspiracy. The first is a tragedy born from a characters actions. Every action they take slowly brings them one step closer to their destruction. The actions are usually born from one inherent flaw, most likely hubris but it can be anything really, even kindness. In the end the character suffers and it's their own fault, even if they're not entirely to blame (if that makes any sense). If you want Fire Emblem, Lyon is a good example of this. He doesn't deserve to get his soul eaten by the Demon King, but it's happening purely thanks to his own actions.

The Conspiracy is the opposite of the Cautionary Tale. That's when the character's choices are completely inconsequential. Something has targeted that character, be it a group in power or destiny itself, and that character is absolutely fucked as a result. Every action they take is logical, smart and even laudable. But it doesn't matter at all, because they're just a cog in a machine that's much larger than themselves and they're going to suffer for it. I find Sigurd is actually a pretty decent example of this. After his first decision to leave home and save Adean, his fate is sealed. Every step he takes brings him closer to that barbecue no matter what he does, because the people in power have decided that he's the right guy in the right place to serve as their patsy.

There's also the random tragedy where something happens suddenly without reason or cause. That's probably the absolute most tragic thing that can happen to someone in real life, but you won't find many stories even attempting it because something that has no reason or cause is generally bad writing (although it can work if the tone is just right).

I think the way to stop such stories from just becoming a sob story is to remember that the characters have to be involved in some way. Even in the Conspiracy, the character has to be trying to do something, making decisions of some sort, it just so happens that their choices are meaningless. If a character sits around and does nothing and suffers for it, then most people likely won't care (even if that's something that's pretty common in real life too). It's also a case where seeing is so much more powerful than telling (though I do have one nifty quote that is pure telling but is absolutely fantastic at depicting utter despair, so no hard and fast rules).

EDIT: I realize this thread is about Backstories specifically, when I went on to write a diatribe about Tragedies in general. But I still think a lot of what I wrote works to a certain extent. The only caveat I have is that a backstory really has to mean something for it to exist (while also, at the same time, as someone else pointed out, don't just use it as an excuse for certain actions or as a tool to draw sympathy). It has to heavily tie into the plot and character to really justify existing. It's good to have a character fully realized, but if their backstory isn't tying into the actual story, then the audience doesn't really need to know.

Edited by Jotari

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