Story Weaving on Steroids: Painful Pasts

15 Jun

This is part of a series of post that gives you tips, tricks, and dirty little secrets that will help pump up your plot, and make your story an irresistible read! Today’s trick:

Painful Pasts

Making characters interesting is your job as a writer. One way to make a character more interesting is to give them some scars. Giving a character a painful past does a couple of things it hooks the reader with empathy, gives you a better basis for their character, and can also add suspense and tension to your plot.

Characters with painful pasts, whether it be coming from a broken home or something more dramatic like being scared by the poisonous sword of an alien warrior bring automatic empathy with them. When readers discover the situation that has scarred your character it creates instant empathy (which is a key part in hooking a reader into your story). Readers may not have been in the exact situation as your character, but they understand the emotions that go with it. Everyone can relate to fear, anxiousness, and sadness.

Giving a character a terrible memory of their pasts also sets up a basis to build that character from. People who come from bad families or have gone through traumatic experiences are often deeply effected by them. A traumatic experience will shape your characters personality. For some it will make them introverted, others will become bitter,  and still others will go through their life trying to be positive despite their past. Seeing the path your character takes after their traumatic experience will tell you a lot about their personality and make them easier to write about.

Most importantly, a difficult past or experience can provide tension and conflict for you plot. Bringing out a characters past slowly, or shrouding it in mystery will give your readers something to keep reading for. This is an especially good tactic for characters whose perspective you are not writing for. Trying to discover someones past can be a very good subplot.  A persons past can also be reviled suddenly and used as a major plot point (or turning point) in a story.

If you haven’t figured it out yet I am a HUGE Avatar fan!

Granted, a painful past is useful to add interest to your story, but they shouldn’t be used ALL the time. Not every character you write needs to come from an abusive home, or have burn marks all over their faces. A couple good examples of painful pasts that I can think of are Zuko from the show Avatar: The Last airbender. Zuko was forced at the age of 13 to dual his father in an ‘Agni Kai’ (one on one) fire bending battle because he spoke up in a war meeting and insulted a general, thus insulting his father. From then on he was left with a scar on his face, and huge dishonor on his name. This shapes Zuko into a conflicted character, part loving, part loathing his father. This will lead him to make the biggest and most difficult decision of his life: should he side with his father or with the Avatar?

Another good example can been seen in Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver. Sam, a werewolf, had his wrists slit by his parents in a bath tub while they held him down because when they found out what he was (at the age of 12)they believed they could ‘bleed the wolf out of him’. Ever since Sam can’t even look at a bath tub. This also shapes him into a shy, introverted person. And of course keeps him very far away from bath tubs!

Like I said there are plenty of good books without characters with Painful Pasts, Lauren Oliver’s novel ‘Before I Fall’ is a really good novel about a privileged girl named Samantha King. She’s never had anything bad at all happen to her. Oliver uses the plot to keep tension and if Sam had had a bad past it simply would have cluttered the plot and taken away from the impactfulness of Samantha having to repeat the same day over and over again. It also would have made the plot null and void because she probably wouldn’t have been so stuck up or unkind to others had she struggled as a child. This would have completely changed the novel!

All and all a painful pasts is a very useful trick, but should be used sparingly and in the right places!

Check out other Story Weaving on Steroids posts

 

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One Response to “Story Weaving on Steroids: Painful Pasts”

  1. Naomi June 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    And here’s to another great post! 🙂
    I agree, I mean in a way everyone will have suffered something in their past, be it their childhood or their teenage years, you don’t live in rainbow and pixie dust land for long before something challenging/character shaping happens to you.
    I think no-one has a perfect family for instance, it doesn’t mean you have a bad one, but most people have some sort of sore spot at home.
    But of course, some people have had it much worse than others, some people are abused or orphaned, others just didn’t get the toy they wanted, but it can still affect them hugely even if it is seemingly small or superficial.
    But I agree that obviously, not everyone has led a devastating life, a lot of people are genuinely happy and don’t let it affect them, others are much more brooding and dwell on it, letting it get them down.
    One thing that’s sure is that our personalities and character traits are formed throughout our lives and from when we are only small. People cope in different ways. I try to look on the bright side 🙂
    A hard past or a trying time the reader can relate to can definitely earn empathy points with them too, and I think it’s important to make your characters as real and relatable as possible. however, we musn’t push it and make everyone an abused child either, because not everyone is 🙂
    All in all, a very good post 🙂 Keep it up! x

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