Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: The Tragedy of Backstory – Part 2

Welcome back from Part 1, everyone! For those who missed it, click the link to check out my theories on the two types of Backstory for redemption arcs. I’ll be using that theory a lot in here and it may not make much sense without reading Part 1 first…

Anyway.

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 2

Yay! Another case-study, you know you all love them so much…

So, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but Disney’s been doing this thing recently where it remakes all its best animated films into ‘live-action’ versions?

Oh, you’ve heard already?

Anyway, I’ve taken to calling the whole trend ‘Disney’s Tragic Backstory Series’, because that seems to be the biggest addition they make to justify telling me the same story over again, though DVDs of the original films don’t exist and aren’t freely available. In every single film, there’s a new section dedicated to providing insight into someone’s tragic past, and I’ve never really found this addition to be very helpful, but rarely in ways I could easily identify before.

Then the 2017 Live-Action Beauty & The Beast came out and I finally had a good case study to talk about, so here we are!

Firstly, I wanted to look at the backstory as presented in the film, and then we’re going to roll up our sleeves and think about another way to add in a tragic backstory that’s better.

But before we start that…

The Lesson of Beauty & The Beast – A Very Brief History

This might seem a strange place to start, but the Beauty & The Beast started out as a morality tale, much like Cinderella, and as such any retelling of it inevitably comes with some form of lesson baked into it. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s tried to erase this, but the fact that I haven’t heard of any such version suggests that it wasn’t a very successful attempt. In Beauty & The Beast, every single incarnation has someone learn the lesson that True Beauty is found within a person, not in their external features.

Originally this lesson was learned by Belle. Since the story was originally penned to be read by young women in an age of arranged marriages, Belle stands in for a lot of young women who were married to men they didn’t really know, and who would have seemed very intimidating and potentially undesirable. The lesson she must learn is that when she gets to know the Beast, she finds him to be very learned, intelligent and gentle, and in learning to love him for what he is on the inside, his outward appearance changes to match this, like a reward for her.

I bring this up because, as a result of this lesson, the Beast is usually shown to have been cursed because of something his parents have done wrong, not him. In the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, the Beast explains to Belle that he was cursed because his parents had angered the local fairies. The fault for his curse belongs to others, not him, although he must suffer for it and hope for release by another as well. It’s all very tragic and pitiable, and we yearn for Belle to learn to love him so he can be freed. 2017’s version seems to have really liked a lot of elements of Jean Cocteau’s version, and I think this is reflected not only in the visuals but in the message too.

However.

The 1997 Animated Disney version took a different route, which was definitely a good idea in a modern world with different societal norms. Now the person who must learn a lesson about the importance of looking inside for true beauty and the importance of character over outward features in falling in love is the Beast. As a result, he’s the one who must learn to become someone with an inside worthy of being loved by Belle. Therefore the Beast’s backstory, as told in the opening scene, is that he was a selfish prince who was cursed by the Enchantress after she tested his kindness in the form of an old hag. The fault and the lesson are both his, making it far more the Beast’s film than Belle’s if you think about it.

Victor Hugo-Style Deviation on European Folklore

(Sorry, I swear this won’t be a regular thing, but I just have to…)

As a quick side-note, I just want to clarify something that has been oft-repeated on the internet without its proper context.

There’s this established belief that the prince should not have been cursed because letting strangers into your home is Bad. Especially if those strangers are magical in some way. Therefore the prince was only doing what was right by turning away an old lady into the stormy night, rather than just asking for her to be given food and shelter at least until morning or the storm passes.

If you are of a mind to agree with this, I’m not going to judge you, but I will say that you would not make it past the first five minutes of Supernatural: Fairy Tale Edition.

For those who don’t know much about European customs and folklore, Hospitality was, and is, fantastically important. Like, sacred duty, etched into your soul, Do Not Mess With important. If you had a house, especially if you were a lord or I-don’t-know a prince, then you were honour bound to provide those who begged at your door with food and shelter. Failure to do so, at least in stories meant to underline the importance of such duties, is absolutely always met with disaster in some form.

In folklore, providing fairies or spirits with food and shelter meant that they were indebted to you and therefore could not trick you, or harm you in some way, so it was always a good idea. There’s a reason that so many plucky heroines in old stories will offer strange old ladies in the woods whatever of their food they have, even if it is their very last crumbs; it shows that they are good and generous people, yes, but it also establishes that they understand the importance of sharing whatever they have. Kindness in folklore is a tactical advantage as well as a morally-upright character trait.

There are plenty of other examples of the importance of guest-rights outside of children’s fairy stories too. Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen, straight-up kidnapped the Earl of Howth’s heir and held him hostage when they refused her shelter in a storm, refusing to ransom him back for gold until she had an apology. The family took this lesson so much to heart that to this day always set an extra place at Howth Castle in case they get unexpected visitors. Even the Bible has examples, my favourite being the tale of Sodom and Gamora where God sends the angels in disguise to see how they are treated as strangers, and then utterly destroys the place when they are not received well.

All I’m saying here is that a temporary curse with an established release clause is the absolute best-case scenario the prince was facing for this utter dereliction of duty, while he sat there in his big-ass palace with his hordes of servants and whatnot. When instant and painful death is among your options, suddenly a cursed form seems like a weird bright-side, no?

The 2017 Live-Action Version

For those playing the home game, the quotes I’ll be looking at here are from the screenplay for the film, which can be found here.

The 2017 Disney Beauty and the Beast was clearly made by a lot of really creative people; although largely based on the 1991 animated version, it also pulled from other sources such as the 1946 Jean Cocteau La Belle et La Bête, and they came up with plenty of cool new ideas I hadn’t seen before.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have such a good team of heartless editors, because none of the cool new ideas really have any space to breathe and get explored properly.

I really liked the idea that not only do all the villagers get forced by magic to forget about the palace and its inhabitants, but the town, like the castle, is trapped in time for all these years. That’s a fun expansion on Belle’s first lines in the film; “Little town, it’s a quiet village/ Every day like the one before.”

But this never really comes up enough – Le Fou and Gaston have been away in the war – did they not notice that everything’s exactly the same? There’s this bit in the screenplay:

Belle looks at the clock on the church counting to 8am. Wait for it. 3. 2. 1.

EXT. VILLAGE OF VILLENEUVE – MORNING

On cue, the villagers begin their day. A HOUSEWIFE opens a window, nods to a WOMAN shaking out a rug nearby. A BUTCHER opens his shop, waves to a COBBLER moving past with his cart.

VILLAGERS

Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour.

So is this more like a Groundhog Day thing, and every day is literally the same to the point of knowing what comes next? No one gets older all these years, we see that, so does anyone die, if they can’t get old? Or sick? Since they also added in the thing with Belle’s mother dying of the plague, does that actually save the village itself, if no one gets sick?

I have so many questions!

Anyway.

There’s another angle that gets added into the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast and that’s a much expanded backstory. Or more accurately, it adds in what feels like little snippets of at least three backstories: Belle’s mother dying of the plague and her father not wanting to talk about his wife anymore; the Beast’s mother dying and his father abusing him until he becomes a cruel and vain a**hole; and the staff feeling that they deserve to be cursed because they didn’t help the Beast when he was a child.

That’s a lot of backstories, and I feel like the writers didn’t think too hard about what purpose any of these backstories were serving in the main story. It’s not that the ideas themselves were bad (although I feel like the servants’ story was the weakest by far.) It’s that they are never tied into the main story’s thesis to feel like they needed to be there.

The 1991 Beauty and the Beast uses its backstory purely as Context. I’ve put the text at the end of the post, because it’s so tightly written, giving only the relevant information, and yet still sounds so poetic, like a real legend-of-old. Literally called ‘The Prologue’ in the soundtrack, it’s only there to introduce the setting, one of the main characters, and the lesson that he must learn. The question at the end of the Prologue is “For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?” and the answer by the end of the film is ‘No one, so stop being a beastly person and become a better one. Only then will anyone love you.’

Judging by the amount of time given over to backstories in the 2017 version, the way that backstory is revealed in snippets and chunks all the way through the film right up to the third act, I think it’s safe to say that this was something Disney really wanted to get creative with, just as they did in the live-action Cinderella and Maleficent. But it falls into the Mutton/Lamb trap in which it’s not Contextual Backstory being expanded and reused to be Constructive Backstory, it’s just Contextual Backstory taking up more than its fair-share of space!

Rather than get all miffed about that though, I propose that we have a good look at all the bits of backstory and make ourselves a Constructive Backstory for the film, OK? The rules are that we can’t add in new things, we can only expand on what’s already there and we can cut things out, OK?

Reshaping And Reusing

As already mentioned, there are a lot of ideas in Beauty and the Beast to pick from, so I’ve nabbed three that I think can go together really well. Lemme know in the comments if you had ideas from the film you think would add up into their own story in a cool way?

1. The Servants’ Role

The castle servants being tied in with the Beast’s life more closely, resulting in their being cursed, is a good idea.

Their role gets expanded on in the 2017 version, even more than in the 1991 film when they became actual characters for the first time. However, they do start sapping the Beast’s contributions to the plot: things like Lumiere offering Belle a room instead of the Beast, Cogsworth banning her from the West Wing, and the pair even making the decision to ask her to dinner, which the Beast refuses to consider even before Belle does!

This runs the risk of reducing the connection between Beast and Belle, as Belle is spending so much time interacting with the servants, even singing a verse in ‘Days in the Sun’ which is all about the servants wanting to be, if you will, ‘Human Again’.

But if we tied the servants’ in much more to the Beast’s character then this isn’t so much of an issue because the servants will start to feel more like an extension of the Beast’s character and struggles instead of a separate group.

2. That Enchanted Book

I know that the Enchanted Book being added into the 2017 film has got a lot of flack, but I think that’s mostly because the poor thing had nothing to do! It’s premise in the film makes no sense at all, at least the way the Beast explains it:

The beast unlocks a desk cabinet. In it, resting on velvet, its gold-leaf cover faintly glimmering with magic, is a LEATHER BOUND BOOK covered in a thick layer of dust.

THE BEAST

Another little “gift” from the Enchantress…

The beast cracks open the book to reveal AN ANTIQUE WORLD ATLAS. No  countries. Just land and sea.

THE BEAST (CONT’D)

A book that truly allows you to escape… It was her cruellest trick of all. The outside world has no place for a creature like me. But it can for you.

Like, did the Enchantress have to be the one to give it to him? He couldn’t just have a magic book in his centuries old library already? Also if being able to travel the whole world instantly is the price for being turned into the Beast, I’m not sure if this is the terrible fate that’s being suggested.

I enjoyed one critic’s idea that this was the Enchantress trying to give him the means to go out into the world and find someone who’ll teach him kindness and love him for himself or something, and that the Beast was too pathetic to understand and he hid himself away and didn’t use it at all.

It was rendered even more pointless than expected because it’s a teleporting book that takes you anywhere, yet Belle doesn’t use it to get to her father the quick-way, instead taking the scenic route via horseback. We’ve established that Belle can use this too, so why doesn’t she go home by magic, like she does in the Jean Cocteau version (with a glove) or the original fairy tale (with a magic ring).

But.

I have a better idea. Since the book was only really used to give Belle’s tragic backstory of her mother’s death, let’s repurpose this thing. Belle doesn’t need to know how her mother died for this story in any sense, and clearly the story as being told doesn’t want teleportation to be established for plot reasons. So.

What if the Enchantress gave the Beast a book that would only show him his own past? It can’t take him anywhere, it isn’t keyed into someone else’s life, it’s just his own past. And she gives it to him so that he can understand his own mistakes, like the Ghost of Christmas Past does:

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

3. The Beast’s Upbringing Creating the Reason for the Curse

This one’s a hard one; the way it is presented in the film, the concept that the Beast is the way he is because of his parents is … unconvincing. For one thing, the Beast himself doesn’t mention his parents, either of them once. Not even when they share the revelation that Belle’s mother is dead (of the plague, I’m not letting this go, why did they need this?) does the Beast mention his mother dying when he was young. His father is mentioned once in the story too, and that’s by Mrs Potts:

BELLE

Why do you care so much about him?

MRS. POTTS

We’ve looked after him all his life.

BELLE

But he has cursed you somehow.

(off their silence)

Why? You did nothing.

MRS. POTTS

You’re quite right there, dear. You see, when the master lost his mother, and his cruel father took that sweet innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him… we did nothing.

And we as an audience see nothing for ourselves. The only time we see the parents, the mother lies dying and the father leads the child away from her death bed. I know the music tried to make this feel sinister, but parents are not supposed to leave small children to clutch at the cold dead hands of the lately deceased, so for all we get told that the Beast’s father was a cruel man, all the film shows us is responsible parenting. Good job.

Still, there is something like potential here, I believe. If the point of the film is that the Beast must learn to throw away the poor behaviour and values he learned in his youth and grow and change as a person to be a good man worth loving, then focussing on his upbringing isn’t a bad idea.

A Recipe For Learning From the Past

Right, putting all of these elements together with the rest of the story, I give you: A Suggested Backstory Integration.

Let us consider, for a moment that, rather than dying as is traditional for Disney’s parental figures, the King and Queen were utterly emotionally distant from the Beast as a child, leaving him to be raised entirely by the servants (as would have been more time-appropriate). When they do interact with him, it is largely to be critical, and we can reuse some of that dialogue for criticisms from the Beast over Belle as well. Nice tie-in and illustration of how the Beast has internalised the lessons of his parents.

Let us suggest that the servants were perhaps not very good at raising a prince. That very much like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, he was given whatever he wanted in an effort not to get the servants into trouble and to keep him out of the way and quiet. Therefore, the Beast grows up to be spoiled and with no real sense of consequences or empathy. The servants are the only people really in his life and they are subservient to him, so his understand of interpersonal relations will be a bit warped.

(Much of this can be explained overtly via the cinematic miracle of voice-over, as is traditional with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast)

Then we have the curse from the Enchantress, yada yada, and she leaves him with the book and instructions that he must use it to learn the lessons he needs to.

Then Belle shows up, we’ve had the exchange for her father scene, and the Beast and Belle argue a lot and he keeps offending her with criticisms of her etiquette and dress and whatnot (in place of his thing of calling her father a thief?)

In the 2017 film, Belle asks the servants about the curse several times, getting details on why the servants are cursed and what will happen to them if the curse is not broken:

BELLE

What happens when the last petal falls?

LUMIÈRE

The master remains a beast forever. And the rest of us become…

MRS. POTTS

Antiques.

LUMIÈRE

Knickknacks.

PLUMETTE

Lightly used houseware.

COGSWORTH

Rubbish. We become rubbish.

Instead, why not have Belle asking the Beast these questions as soon as they start getting to know each other. The Beast takes her to the library (since in this version he’s not giving her the library, it’s just the location of something he wants to show her) and hands her the Enchanted Book. He could say something like “I was given this by the Enchantress so that I could learn where I went wrong in my life. I have looked at its contents many times, but you are far wiser than I ever was, and I think that you need only look at it once.” He makes to leave, but Belle catches his arm and suggests that they look at it together instead.

They watch the Beast’s childhood in snippets, but this time the focus could be angled more towards the young man the Beast started to grow into and on the rising concerns of the servants. Perhaps you could have multiple little silent moment of the worried looks from the main servants (Mrs Potts, Cogsworth and Lumiere) as the Beast treats the people he meets rudely and with casual cruelty. You could even go so far as to Belle and the Beast overhearing a conversation in which Lumiere is trying to tell Cogsworth that they need to do something about the Beast before he truly grows to be a man, worried about the kind of king he will be, and Cogsworth reiterating what is clearly an old argument about how it is not their place to interfere, it is not for them to tell the prince how to behave. Have Lumiere throw all subtlety out of the window and intone that the prince will “soon be more beast than man!”

The point is that Beauty and the Beast is not a subtle story – a man literally reforms his beastly nature and therefore turns physically from a beast into a man! – there’s no reason not to go all the way with it and have a Beast of Christmas Past moment, if you’ve invented the Enchanted Book to do it with!

It also means that the film is showing us more, instead of telling us what’s happened, and Belle and the Beast have to spend more time together and Belle genuinely has to get to know the Beast through watching his life. Perhaps you could give the pair all these fun snippets of conversation while they watch his past life? Like, when the Beast first comes ‘on-stage’ as a small child, and Belle cooing over “how cute you were!” and the Beast getting all bashful at the praise. And Belle would get the context of all those mean things he’s said to her in the first act and understand that no one taught him not to be awful and rude to people.

They could find common ground in games they both played as children, or songs they both learned to sing. You could have little moments of fun too, like the Beast’s first dancing lessons as a child, and grown-up Beast taking Belle through the same steps in the background of the room, so they’re having fun together as well as learning important backstory.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to do it, but if Disney is so interested in fleshing out it’s old stories with ‘humanising’ backstories, then I’d like to see them use it more inventively. Lots of people have been saying recently that Disney is out of ideas, but the sheer amount of unexplored-yet-deeply-interesting ideas in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast alone could have filled a few films!

Ideas are not in short supply – but having fun with only a few at a time makes for a much more satisfying ride.

So that’s my ideas on having fun with the Beauty and the Beast 2017’s backstory. Did you like it? Do you have cool ideas that you think would work in the same way? Were there ideas thrown up in the film you wish were explored more? Let me know in the comments and see you next time!

The 1991 Prologue

Behold the wonder of this writing! It’s beautiful…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land,
A young Prince lived in a shining castle.
Although he had everything his heart desired,
The Prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.
But then, one winter’s night,
An old beggar woman came to the castle
And offered him a single rose In return for shelter from the bitter cold.
Repulsed by her haggard appearance,
The Prince sneered at the gift,
And turned the old woman away.
But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances,
For Beauty is found within.
And when he dismissed her again,
The old woman’s ugliness melted away
To reveal a beautiful Enchantress.
The Prince tried to apologize, but it was too late,
For she had seen that there was no love in his heart.
And as punishment,
She transformed him into a hideous beast,
And placed a powerful spell on the castle,
And all who lived there.
Ashamed of his monstrous form,
The beast concealed himself inside his castle,
With a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.
The Rose she had offered,
Was truly an enchanted rose,
Which would bloom until his twenty-first year.
If he could learn to love another,
And earn her love in return
By the time the last petal fell,
Then the spell would be broken.
If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast
For all time.
As the years passed,
He fell into despair, and lost all hope,
For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: The Tragedy of Backstory – Part 1

Ah, backstory. A vital part of any character design (and rarely as necessary to the story being told as we all thought it was in the first draft.)

I remember I once wrote a draft of a now-abandoned novel, and the friend I asked to read it found so much more backstory than was required she just highlighted all instances of backstory and then handed the printout back to me wordlessly. It was a bit humiliating. In some places I was telling more backstory than actual story.

Yeah.

I suspect that this experience was what caused me to really examine how different writers approach this device, in all stories I now encounter. It’s basically a whole separate hobby by this point. And it’s really fascinating to me: all the different effects and uses writers can find for the simple act of telling me what’s happened before the story I am encountering even gets started.

Backstory is a narrative device with many, many uses, and one backstory can serve a whole slew of different aims. Some of the most common examples might be giving a sense of history to a fictional world, a sense of age to characters (if they were having adventures seventy years ago, their experience counts for a lot), and is a good way of feeding readers lies or half-truths in the form of legends passed down for generations. We don’t have time to talk about all of them, right now. But this is the redemption arc series, so that’s what we’re going to focus on, OK?

There are, I think, two main categories of backstory in a redemption arc: Contextual Backstory and Constructive Backstory. They are completely different in style, form and narrative purpose, and we’re going to check them out and see some really good examples of each. Then we’re going to look at the problems that can occur when writers get confused. (It happens to the best of us).

Let’s take a look…

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 1

Contextual Backstory

Contextual Backstory tends to be very short, and simply gives a hint of how a character has reached the point in their life where they are ready for a redemption arc. It’s short and simple; there’s not too much nuance presented. There doesn’t need to be – all the character development for the arc will take place in the main story and the Contextual Backstory is simple set-up.

This can be as simple as a character answering the question “Why are you helping me?” with one sentence: “I lost my wife years ago because I was foolish, and I’m not going to repeat my mistakes.” Because really, that sentence probably tells us everything we need to know – there was an event in your past that you feel the need to atone for and now the plot is going to follow you doing just that. Fine.

I worry that some writers, especially newer ones, get the impression that length equals quality, or is in some way necessary. (Like I did with that now abandoned novel.) Absolutely everything I’ve learned from editing could be summed up as: ‘You need to tell people way less than you think.’

Yes, you could expand on this traumatic past event, but do you actually need to? Are you sure?

A really good example of Contextual Backstory in action can be found in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr Darcy’s backstory is genuinely given right at the end of the book! That’s how much you needed it for his character arc!

“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

The way Austen structures Pride and Prejudice fascinates me. I can’t think of many stories where a character’s backstory is given after they learn the lesson of their arc, thus allowing the reader to finally appreciate the magnitude of the lesson they learned, but I’d like to see more of it.

Mr Darcy’s speech is a perfect example of Contextual Backstory in action, because while it’s interesting for the reader to learn how Darcy managed to become the proud and disagreeable man that he is throughout much of the book until forced to learn better, it does not matter why he’s like this. Story-wise and audience-wise, it absolutely does not matter.

Mr Darcy is utterly unpleasant to everyone who shows him kindness and welcome for the whole first half of the book, and the fact that he was spoiled by his parents does not excuse this at all. It doesn’t exempt him whatsoever from learning how to behave decently to other people, and he knows this.

Structurally, we are shown the effects of Darcy’s mistakes long before we learn the context; Mrs Bennet, despite having five unmarried daughters and despite Darcy’s large fortune never once tries to encourage her girls to secure a match:

“But I can assure you,” [Mrs Bennet] added, “that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man.”

When Wickham tells lies about Darcy in Meryton, we are shown how everyone is completely willing to believe them because of the poor impression Darcy has made on everyone:

The whole of … his claims on Mr. Darcy, and all that he had suffered from him, was now openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and everybody was pleased to know how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known anything of the matter.

Miss Bennet was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes—but by everybody else Mr. Darcy was condemned as the worst of men.

And of course there’s the fateful moment when Darcy is shown how and why he must change if he is to have a chance at the life he wants:

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

In short, so many of Darcy’s problems in life (and love!) stem from the impression he makes on people, and the reason why he makes this impression is not relevant; he needs to change regardless. That’s his half of the story that we all know and love, and the lesson is impactful because we get to watch it happen.

We know that it might not be easy, nor should it be or there’d be no plot. Austen even sets up Darcy’s struggle ahead of time so we, the readers, can enjoy watching it pay-off:

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Contextual Backstory is best used either for set-up or pay-off. In Pride and Prejudice Austen uses it as a pay-off for all the lessons Darcy has learned over the course of the story. It feels cathartic to watch a character tell us how much he needed the lesson, and why he’d got himself into that mess, now that it’s all over.

When used at the beginning of a story, as a set-up, it essentially boils down to something like this: “Once upon a time there was a spoiled prince, and he was cruel to all those around him until an enchantress cursed him” (We’ll look at that in Part 2, don’t worry). It just explains how we got into the position where the story starts, and then we all get on with the fun of the story itself.

Constructive Backstory

Constructive Backstory will always be much longer and plays a larger role in the main narrative. A character needs to actively deal with their past, going over past circumstances and actions and dealing with the repercussions that came from them.

The best place to use this type of backstory is in any story where the lesson being learned by the character is the primary plot (rather than a sub-plot in the case of Mr Darcy – it facilitates the primary plot of Darcy and Elizabeth’s love story, but it isn’t the primary focus of the book). That means that your readers need all the available information possible, as such stories work best when written from the perspective of the character learning the lesson.

In this field, we really can’t look at any better example than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Look at how much space Christmas Past takes up, nearly a third of the story! And in doing so it covers all the main themes the story encompasses: that money cannot buy happiness, that happiness is worth more than money, that having friends may be harder than keeping entirely to oneself but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

Looking at the story from a structural approach, there’s plenty of good build up before we dive into spectral shenanigans. We get a good look at what Ebenezer Scrooge is like, we see the people in his life – his nephew and his clerk principally – and we hear his views on poverty, wealth and the role society has to play in both. Not to mention the famous speech on why he wishes people would just stop with the Christmas thing!

But when we take a look at his past life, we see where he’s acquired his attitudes and he sees, from an equally removed position what this has cost him, and the lessons he has forgotten.

We get a certain amount of Contextual Backstory in the way Scrooge’s need to be wealthy was developed and why he clings to it:

`What Idol has displaced you.’ [Scrooge] rejoined.

`A golden one.’

`This is the even-handed dealing of the world.’ he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.’

`You fear the world too much,’ she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not.’

But this isn’t what makes up the majority of Christmas Past, and tellingly it isn’t the thing that people remember and take away from the story at all. What people remember is Dickens’s use of Constructive Backstory. What makes the difference, is the way that Dickens always makes sure to tie the backstory into the story of Scrooge’s present. Take this moment when the value of happiness and money is compared:

`A small matter,’ said the Ghost, `to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’

`Small.’ echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

`Why. Is it not. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise.’

`It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. `It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

`What is the matter.’ asked the Ghost.

`Nothing in particular,’ said Scrooge.

`Something, I think.’ the Ghost insisted.

`No,’ said Scrooge,’ No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.’

As a reader, we can visibly track Scrooge’s progress towards learning to be a better person through examining his past. This isn’t information which enhances the story, this is information without which you couldn’t have a story.

Mutton Dressed As Lamb… The Backstory Version

Let’s be honest, there’s only so many stories out there. It feels like we’re still right in the middle of a movement to retell old stories in new ways, either with fairy tales, or indeed nostalgic reboots.

And that’s absolutely great! Telling old stories in new ways is the best way to keep stories relevant and therefore keep having a reason to tell those stories again and again. I will never understand people who get all uptight about only looking at ‘the original version’ of fairy and folk tales – like such a thing exists since those stories existed for centuries before they were ever written down! Stories are made to change with every retelling. That’s genuinely what they are for!

Having said that…

One of the benefits as a writer of looking through lots of different versions of the same story is that it allows you to gain a better understanding of narrative devices as being distinct from the story itself. The story is the same between different versions, but the changes in where focus is placed, or what is expanded or cut out, or how various actions being given to different characters affects the story as a whole is very helpful, as you are effectively forced to see the story as both a whole and the sum of its parts.

Case in point: Backstory.

I have for the past few years used the utterly professional and academic term ‘Mutton/Lamb Backstory’ It’s not elegant I know, but it’s the best way I can find to summarise the feeling I get when one type of backstory is used the wrong way. The end result is something that feels unconvincing and dissatisfactory for me, like I’m being sold a lie, but I think it’s more likely to be the product of using a perfectly good narrative device in the wrong place.

In original works, I find this mostly manifests as Constructive Backstory being mistaken for Contextual, by which I mean there are signs of a rich and complex backstory that reflects or ties into the events of the main story but hasn’t been sufficiently explored to feel satisfactory.

I confess that most of the time I find this in either amateur fiction online or in the drafts of works I’m beta-reading, so I can’t easily give an example without betraying confidences. However, if you are yourself getting feedback on your work that includes a lot of ‘this could be expanded upon’, then maybe consider if this is your problem? Have a look at tying your backstory in a bit more, and have your characters explore the repercussions of their actions and experiences. Let the lessons learned from this inform how they act for the rest of your story.

In bigger-budget retellings of familiar stories, however, is the more (for me, at least) objectionable mistake. When Contextual Backstory is used as if it is Constructive. I cannot express how disappointed I become when I have to experience this.

Essentially, this will manifest itself as a relatively simple backstory which doesn’t affect the actual plot of the main story at all, but which is given far too much time and focus. It keeps cropping up, under the guise of ‘being revealed in stages’, when it often could be easily summarised and have the same effect. It may even be hinted at several times – as if building up to its reveal is necessary for it to be interesting.

Doing this with your Contextual Backstory tends to sap the time given to real character development we all tuned in for, and in terms of narrative structure it does wonders to kill any joy in that story for the audience, because all the interesting stuff has clearly happened before this story.

As a reader, I’m sorry, but I don’t care that your characters used to be interesting if they aren’t interesting now. Are the adventures they used to have overshadowing the one I’m supposed to be reading?

If so, why don’t you just tell me that story then, if this one isn’t good enough?

There’s also a bad tendency, especially in the context of redemption arcs, for this misused backstory to appear to be excusing a character for their awful actions within the main story. Having a miserable past does not entitle you to make others miserable now. Why would you write that?

In 2015 Disney published A Frozen Heart, written by Elizabeth Rudrick, based off the hit movie Frozen. As is common with Disney’s expansions on its own stories, it includes a lot of backstory for the film in an effort to put the story’s villain, Hans, in a favourable and sympathetic light. It builds heavily off the line from Hans to Anna that his twelve older brothers were mean to him, including two of them pretending that he didn’t exist for years. We get to read this pretty harrowing tale of Hans’s upbringing and the emotional abuse he suffers from his father, who seems to have really subscribed to the ideas of Social Darwinism, and his brothers and…

And no, I’m sorry. I just… I can’t. Backstories can explain behaviours; they can’t justify them.

As we established in the previous post, your characters need to earn their redemption through their actions and the lessons they learn. You can’t have them build up a strange credit-system wherein if they suffer in their backstory they can get away with murder in the main story.

Hans in the Frozen movie genuinely tries his level best to murder the crowned queen of a foreign nation, having left the heir to the throne to die, and falsifying a claim for himself, effectively taking the crown by force.

Two women nearly died, and while it’s not all on his shoulders, Hans still does his level best to steal himself a kingdom at their expense. I know he wanted to escape his family, but seriously? We’re just going to hand-wave an attempted coup by a foreign power away like that? I suppose we’ve learned where Hans got his ruthlessness from, but I think that could have been summarised in a paragraph at the start. The only other thing we get out of it is the impression that we shouldn’t hold Hans responsible for his actions in the story we’ve already been told in the film and I find that a questionable approach to take in both fiction and real life.

What I’m saying here, structurally speaking, you can’t redeem your character through their backstory. It doesn’t work!

A common defence of poorly used backstory is that is seeks to ‘humanise’ a character, to which I always reply that if a writer cannot make a character ‘human’ simply by writing them well, then backstory will not fix the issue. I can think of nothing so ‘human’ as to seek power at the expense of others, but I don’t see how a rotten childhood contributes to that ‘human’ redemption here.

When writing any story of any kind, the number one thing writers must ask themselves will always be this: Why am I telling people this? Do they need to know?

Backstory is really easy to over-use or mis-use, and I’m speaking as a writer who learned this the hard way! In Part 2, we’re going to have ourselves an experiment! We’ll be looking at a recent Disney film and see what can be done with the backstory. See you next time!