As writers, we know that backstory is important. It helps us understand our characters better and makes the readers feel more connected to them. But when it comes to creating a tragic backstory, it can be tricky to walk the line between heartbreaking and melodramatic. In this blog post, we will discuss 13 tragic backstories that will make your characters (and readers) tear up!
13 Tragic Backstory Ideas
- Loss of a parent or guardian at a young age. Losing a parent or guardian can profoundly impact a child’s life, whether it is through illness, an accident, or violence.
- Witnessing domestic abuse in the home. This could be physical, verbal, or emotional abuse between parents, siblings, or other family members. It can leave lasting scars and affect an individual’s self-esteem and worldview for years to come.
- Suffering from bullying or harassment as a child. Being harassed for race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, appearance, socioeconomic status, etc., can take an immense toll on one’s mental health and self-confidence.
- Experiencing discrimination based on race/ethnicity/religion/nationality. Discrimination often stems from ignorance and fear of the “other,” which can lead to painful experiences such as exclusion from social groups and organizations; verbal abuse; verbal threats; denial of housing/work opportunities; physical assault; etc.
- Dealing with depression or anxiety results from stressful life events such as financial hardship or the death of a loved one. Depression is an extremely painful condition that affects not just one’s mood but also sleep patterns and eating habits. In contrast, anxiety is characterized by persistent worry about everyday things that may seem minor to others but feel very real to those struggling daily.
- Struggling with addiction due to peer pressure from friends and family members who abuse substances such as alcohol or drugs themselves; engaging in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting oneself or other forms of self-harm, or showing signs of emotional instability such as uncontrolled anger or inability to control one’s anger.
- Abusing substances such as alcohol or drugs oneself due to peer pressure from friends and family members who are doing the same. Substance abuse can lead to risky behaviors, addiction, and dependence, loss of interest in hobbies, friends, or family, and even death in extreme cases.
- Experiencing physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a romantic partner, spouse, family member, or other loved one. This type of abuse can be extremely difficult to escape, especially if the abuser is a family member or someone difficult to get away from, such as a boss or coworker.
- Coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity. For those who accept their sexual or gender identity, that process can be a very painful and stressful experience as they struggle to reconcile their feelings and desires with what society expects of them.
- Losing a child during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Miscarriage and stillbirth are both tragic and heartbreaking experiences that can have a profound impact on the parents of the child, who may never get to meet their child in person or get to hold, kiss, or bond with them in any way.
- Experiencing a betrayal of trust at the hands of a loved one who was considered trustworthy. This could be a parent, sibling, spouse, significant other, etc. Its effects can be devastating, especially in cases such as infidelity and other sexual abuse.
Why You Should Create a Character Backstory
Like most writers, you probably start with the basics when creating a new character. You come up with their name, age, occupation, physical appearance, and maybe a few personality traits. But there’s one important element that many writers overlook: the backstory.
Your character’s backstory is the history that shaped them into who they are today. It includes their family history, childhood experiences, education, triumphs, and failures. In short, everything has happened to them up to the point where your story begins.
Why is this important? Because knowing your character’s backstory will make them feel more real to you and your readers. It will also help you make better decisions about their actions and reactions in your story.
Here Are a Few Tips for Creating a Well-Rounded Character Backstory
- Start with the basics. As we mentioned, you’ll want to start with the basics when creating your character’s backstory. This includes their name, age, occupation, physical appearance, and personality traits. Once you have these essentials, you can move on to fleshing out their backstory.
- Use it as a guide. Your character’s backstory should be used as a guide for their actions and reactions in your story. For example, if they had a difficult childhood, they might be more likely to act out or rebel against authority figures in your story. Or if they’re trying to escape their past, they might constantly be looking over their shoulder or running from something (or someone).
- Give them some depth. A well-rounded character is more than just a list of traits and experiences; they need some depth too. This means giving them flaws, weaknesses, strengths, and positive traits. And don’t forget about petty jealousies and private fears! Adding these elements will make your character feel more natural to you and your readers.
- Make it unique. Finally, make sure your character’s backstory is unique to them. In other words, don’t simply copy and paste someone else’s backstory or use generic tropes (the ” orphaned hero” or “tragic love story,” etc.). Your character should be special and memorable, so put some thought into their backstory!
Types of Backstory Every Writer Should Know
Creative writers often use backstories to introduce readers to their characters and the world they inhabit. It can be used to fill in the gaps, providing readers with information that is essential to understanding the plot. But what are the different types of backstory writers can use? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Backstory?
Backstory is, quite simply, the story that came before. It’s the events and circumstances that led up to the story you’re currently telling. Writers use backstories to provide context and richness to their characters and world-building. When done well, it can make your readers feel like they’re getting to know your characters and understand their motivations. When done poorly, however, it can feel like an info dump or slow down the pacing of your story.
That’s why it’s important to know how to use different types of backstories in your writing effectively.
There are four main types of backstories every writer should be aware of
- character history
- setting history
- plot history
- emotional history
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Character History: This type of backstory reveals information about a character’s past that helps explain who they are in the present day. It might include their family history, where they grew up, or formative events from their childhood. Character history is often used to help readers understand a character’s motivations or why they act a certain way.
Setting History: A story’s setting often has a rich history that can be explored through backstory. Setting history might include information about the founding of a city or country, important political events, or even myths and legends surrounding a particular location. Like character history, setting history can help readers understand the world your characters inhabit and how it shapes their lives and experiences.
Plot History: Information from a character or setting’s past can also be used to further the plot of your story in the present day. For example, if two characters have a shared history, that might come back to haunt them in the present day and play into the conflict of your story. Or if your story takes place in a city with a violent past, that might come back to bite your characters as they try to navigate its dark underbelly. Plot history can provide depth and momentum to your story if used effectively.
Emotional History: Last but not least is emotional history—a type of backstory that delves into a character’s emotions and psychological state rather than physical events. This might include traumas from the past or formative relationships that have shaped who they are today. Emotional history is often used in conjunction with other types of backstory to give readers an even deeper understanding of your characters’ inner lives.
How to Use Backstory
Backstory provides context for the present action and can be used to make your characters more relatable and human. But how do you use backstory without bogging down your story? Here are some tips.
- Use dialogue to reveal the backstory.
One of the best ways to avoid dumping information on the reader all at once is to let your characters reveal their backstories through dialogue. When two characters are talking, they can organically mention things that happened in the past. And since we learn about people by talking to them, it makes sense that we would learn about fictional characters in this way too.
- Give just enough information.
With backstory, less is usually more. You want to give your readers just enough information so they can understand your characters and their motivations without giving away too much or getting too detailed. Remember, you’re writing a story, not a history book!
- Use flashbacks judiciously.
If you decide to use flashbacks, make sure they serve a purpose in your story rather than just taking up space. A well-placed flashback can be a powerful tool, but if it’s not adding anything to the story, it’s probably best to leave it out.
The Difference Between Backstory and Background
In fiction writing, two terms are often used interchangeably: backstory and background. While these terms are similar, they refer to two very different things.
The backstory is your character’s history to the point where your story begins. It includes all the events that have shaped your character and made them who they are today. The backstory can be revealed through flashbacks, dialogue, or inner thoughts/monologues.
Background, on the other hand, refers to the setting of your story. It includes information about your characters’ period, location, socio-economic class, etc. Background information helps to set the stage for your story and create a believable world for your readers.
How Well Does Your Backstory Match the Trope?
Every story has a beginning, usually containing key elements that set the stage for the rest of the tale. In many cases, these elements are so essential to the story that they’ve become tropes in their own right. As a result, writers need to consider how well their story’s backstory matches common tropes. After all, if your story doesn’t align with the expectations of the trope, it could end up feeling contrived or even humorous.
One of the most common tropes is “the chosen one.” This is the story of someone prophesied or destined to save the world from some great evil. In many cases, the chosen one is an orphan raised in obscurity but discovers their true identity (and potential) just in time to save the day. Some examples of this trope include Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix, and Harry Potter in Harry Potter.
Another common trope is “the reluctant hero.” This is the story of someone who doesn’t want or feel deserving of the responsibility thrust upon them but ultimately rises to meet the challenge. This trope is often used in conjunction with “the chosen one.” Examples of this trope include Frodo Baggins in Lord of The Rings and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
The “fish out of water” is another popular trope. This is when a character is thrust into a situation where they don’t belong and must navigate their way through it. A good example of this would be Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, an experienced doctor who had to adapt to life on a starship. Other examples include Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz and Mulan in…Mulan.