Comic Book Backstory: Essential Building Block or Wasted Time?
Join Corrina Lawson as she explores compelling three dimensional comic book characters.
Every character in fiction is motivated by their backstory.
But depicting that backstory is complicated.
Readers have to understand what motivates a character to do what they do, but spending too much time on a character’s past and filling in all the blanks can be, well, dead boring, in comics or prose.
To add to the complications, backstory isn’t always what happened before the story —despite its name. Backstory is also about how the character experiences the world they live in and how that world influences the choices they make. You can show so much about a character’s past by how they react in the present: how they live, how they work, how they play, and how they love.
In the Golden Age of comics, creators often cut to the chase with the backstory to simply get to the action. The original origin of Batman is two quick pages of beautiful storytelling by Bill Finger and Bob Kane that did the job for decades. Then all readers needed to know was that the Batman was a pulp hero fighting crime in the city.
In the 1980's, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli would go on to make Batman’s origin a brilliant full-length graphic novel, Batman: Year One. The fascinating choice in this story is not that it retold Batman’s origins. In so many ways, it’s the origin of Gotham City itself, and, to a lesser extent, Jim Gordon. It shows what Gotham is, how difficult reforming it can be, and how even someone honest within the system, Gordon, can’t affect the change that’s needed. So, yes, it retells Batman’s origins but it’s more about the choices he made in order to exist in that world.
That’s why setting is so important in romance stories. One of the reasons Regency romances are so popular is that readers are instantly clued into the setting. How the hero and heroine relate to that familiar setting gives the reader most of what they need to know about the hero and heroine. The Romancelandia Regency world is ready to be inhabited with each new book.
Familiarity also partially explains the popularity of other Romancelandia worlds, such as contemporary small towns. Give a reader a familiar place, and, again, they’ll instantly know so much about the character by how they relate to that place.
That’s a useful shorthand for a writer and a reader because too much backstory can bog down a book. A story needs to happen in the now. Pages and pages of “this happened when the person was young,” won’t work unless it’s immediately relevant to the now.
Lately, flashbacks have become a popular way to show backstory. Most stories using flashbacks in them miss the point. Flashbacks should not just tell the story of the past but how they relate to the present. Lost’s best flashback episode was the brilliant story of Locke, which ended with the revelation that, before the crash, he’d been in a wheelchair and now he could walk. That explained so much as to why he believed the island was magical and that he’d been chosen.
Person of Interest was brilliant in doling out its backstory is tiny segments that were immediately relevant to the present-day story, such as the origin of the Machine’s compassion.
The first season of Green Arrow was also a brilliant use of flashbacks, showing Oliver coming out of his trauma from his years on the island and allowing people into his life again, at the same time showing the tragedy that led him to become the person who first arrived in Starling City. But that thematic resonance has been lost in the later seasons, with flashbacks and flash-forwards simply being narratives to drive the plot. Those become irrelevant or boring because they’re not about character, they’re simply a way to move the narrative forward.
Still, a story has to given something of a character’s past. All characters need to know where they come from in order to move forward. (And writers need to know the backstory, even if they don’t include all of it in a book.)
In Jennifer Cruise’s Bet Me, one of the most beloved contemporary romance novels, Min has to confront the family dynamics that have held her back from her best self. She’s made safe choices because her family has often belittled her and she’s created an existence where she’s comfortable but stuck. As she gains confidence—not just because of the hero but because of her own actions and the support of her friends—she’s able to shed that past and, of course, the hero adores her for it. (And also for the Krispy Kreme sex.)
Backstory is one of those tricky things in storytelling because it’s so intimately connected with setting, with character choices, and with the change that’s needed to move a story forward. A writer often needs to know it all. A reader, however, often only needs some of the past on the page. The rest of it is going to be evident in the present story.
What are your thoughts on backstory in comics or romance or both? Essential or just get to the action please! Join the conversation in the comments or on social media! #comicbooklove
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