Well hello there, Reader!
Today we’re talking about tragic backstories.
You know those things that are common in D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and pretty much every other role-playing game. I guess because happy well-adjusted people aren’t thrill-seeking adventurers?
The backstory is usually some page-long saga the player hands over to the GM (game master) and then info dumps to the rest of the party at a tavern in the first session.
Enter the monologue…
The most boring and least realistic way to introduce us to the core of a character. Because honestly, how many of us have walked up to a perfect stranger at a bar and unloaded all our life trauma?
Okay…maybe you have, Reader. But…have you done it stone-cold sober on a cheery Sunday afternoon?
Nope. Because backstories—especially tragic ones—have an impact on our actions, motivations, desires, and more.
So how do you infuse your story with the depth of a tragic backstory without your Legendary Characters resorting to monologue?
Let me tell you a little story about Kazmira.
You remember Kaz, right? I mentioned her in Quest 11. She’s my D&D character with a super tragic backstory.
She was born and raised in captivity as a magic item/pet until she was 7 in an atrium with windows so high up she could only see a bit of sky and nothing else.
At 7 she was smuggled on a cargo ship to parts unknown that ended up catching fire at night in a river as big as the Nile. She made it to shore but just barely because she. Can’t. Swim.
Starving, she took food from a stall in the city and was being brought in for theft. Then in fear—and in defense of herself—her natural fire magic manifested and she basically lit the city guard on fire.
From there she ended up in a traveling circus which burned down 10 years later when their red dragon revolted. And she was blamed and jailed for the crime.
There’s more, but you get the gist. However, do you want to guess how many of her traveling companions know Kaz’s full backstory?
Zero. Because I only reveal what’s important when it’s important.
We had a quest on a boat and Kaz chose the assignment that required her to remain in the hold guarding the cargo. When on deck she stayed in the very center of the boat.
No one asked why she chose this assignment they just assumed it was because of her background profession as an armed courier.
So everyone was mightily surprised when it came time to suddenly abandon ship and Kaz—very realistically—hesitated. Because to her, the water was more perilous than the fire she was mostly immune to. And also—BOAT ON FIRE!
And this is when the whole party learned that despite living in Zashia, the capital city of the Middle Kingdoms with a river as big as the Nile running through the middle of it, Kazmira Tahara can not swim. And in fact, is terrified of water.
It was in Kaz’s backstory from day 1 but the info wasn’t revealed to the party until a year into the campaign.
By remembering that regardless of whether we exist in real life—or merely on the page—we’re all a sum of our memories and the things we’ve experienced in our lives.
And no matter if they’re a good guy, a bad guy, or something in between, everyone wants to carve their scars into someone else.
And that’s why every character—no matter how good they believe themselves to be—needs a little bit of tragedy and darkness to feel real and true.
Just don’t have them monologue all their tragedy the moment they step on the page.
Your cohort in storytelling,
PS 👉 If you’d like another example of tragic backstories influencing characters’ current actions and interactions with others my ongoing Dark Fantasy Boys Love series They Come at Night releases each Thursday on Wattpad and Tapas.
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