If you meet me in person, chances are at some point I’ll ask you what’s your story. Who you are. What brought you from wherever you’re from to where you are what now. Because whatever the reason, it’s your story and tells a good amount about you.
So naturally, when I watch/play/read something, I’m looking for a character’s story. What made them who they are? Sometimes, you don’t need a particularly deep story (Dr Horrible wants to be inducted into the Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer is going to stop him. Easy), and sometimes just a few hints along the way tells you everything (Russell’s dad isn’t around much, Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs).
But sometimes it benefits us to know more about the character. To know why they are who they are.
Lost went super in-depth. Every episode (at least in the first few seasons) followed a character’s life before the Island. We learnt about Charlie’s struggle with failure and his desire to be able to do something right and why Eko sought redemption so fervently. We were introduced to Locke, the broken man who wants to show the world wrong.
We get to see the defining moments in their lives. We find out why Sawyer is so desperate to be hated, yet also why he will leap to protect someone else. No action is out of character for them since we know them so well. It’s because of the sheer amount of their backstory that we feel like we know them so well. We have their stories.
Similarly, How I Met Your Mother, tells us the story of the group through the narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks (and sometimes within more flashbacks). We learn how the met each other and how they became the pseudo-family that they are. It’s their story, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the wedding(s), the deaths, and the births. We know Ted and friends as well as our own because we’ve learned their story.
The trend of finding out a character’s story is one taken up by the recent Marvel films. In Iron Man and Captain America (and The Amazing Spider-Man too) we’re introduced to them as Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker first.
Steve Rogers is the scrawny kid from Brooklyn with an indomitable spirit. We learn why he’s a hero before he becomes Captain America. For us, Steve’s story is enough to draw us in. We’ve seen where he comes from, before the serum, now show us where it ends. Had we met Steve as Captain America and just had hints about him being a skinny idealistic kid, it just wouldn’t be the same.
Uncharted 3 has a flashback too, to Nathan Drake as a teenager. He’s this orphan boy who’s somewhat lost, seeking adventure and wandering around. He meets Sully and we see where their bond came from. That bond then becomes the core of the story, and we care because we saw where it came from.
Then shows like Community or Firefly just hint around their backstories. Telling us key events but also hinting that these people are more than just skin deep. References are made in the Halo games to Master Chief’s prior exploits, To Kill A Mockingbird mentions that Atticus Finch has skills and a past that his children may never know. Hawkeye and Black Widow had quite the adventure in Budapest, Fezzik might have fought gangs for charity. Sometimes we don’t need to know what their stories are, just that they have them.
When we meet a character we want there to be more than just what we see. A good storyteller often has a biography filled with things we’ll never see and maybe just get a passing reference to. But it’s the mere existence — which will usually come out in the story — that helps make them real.
Point is: everyone’s got a story. So if it works for the plot (and it doesn’t always!), tell us. Tease us. Help us get to know them and make us want to follow them to the end of their journey.
Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors with characters who have some pretty cool stories!