I opened up a book by a new-to-me author recently and I was stoked as I fell into the story in the first few pages. The setup was wonderful, the hero seemed to be my kind of guy, and the heroine had the right mix of vulnerability and strength. I was hooked.
And then it fell apart. Because the author just kept layering event after event of angst and trauma and drama into the hero’s backstory. Despite the hero starting at rock bottom because of all this angst and having nowhere to go but up, he had zero growth over the course of the book. He dwelled completely in the past and, I kid you not, the emotional issues he was dealing with in the first chapter were the same ones he was going on about in the last chapter. He learned nothing.
I’m not going to go into the details of the story, because that’s not the point of this post. This isn’t to pick on a given book. What I want to do is explore this idea that angst = automatically interesting.
You know what, angst can be interesting. The definition of angst is “a strong feeling of being worried or nervous: a feeling of anxiety about your life or situation”. Good emotional conflict often comes out of angsty situations, the sort that fundamentally change how a character views themselves, and twists them up to the point that they’re still dealing with the emotional or psychological issues as the story opens.
Some examples of backstory angst might be:
- A character who’s abandoned by his abusive parents as a child.
- A character who broke her back in a car accident and struggled to learn how to walk again.
- A character who witnessed a brutal robbery and is dealing with PTSD.
- A character who is learning to move on after the death of her wife.
Injecting angst in a character’s backstory can make them more interesting—if you build on it. That’s the key. Angst should be a catalyst for your character to do something. To make a choice. To take action. It’s not the angsty event that’s interesting—it’s how the character deals with it.
I want to read a story about a character who prowls the alleys, protecting street kids because his parents abandoned him. Or the character who’s now a drag racer because she refuses to let her fear of getting hurt again rule her life. Or the character who is trying to live a full life and find love despite the burden of flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms. Or the character who is taking a chance on new, unexpected love as she meets her boss’s adult daughter for the first time.
Generally, I don’t want to read a story with one character who has all of these things (abusive parents, horrible injury/recovery, PTSD from a separate event, death of a loved one) in their backstory. Why? Well, for a few reasons.
- A character who is this burdened may be unable to realistically move forward or even have the emotional capacity enter into a romantic relationship. I want to believe in the romance, but if the character is too weighed down, it’s tough.
- If the character’s history is categorized by a list of awful events that happened to them—without the balance of them taking action because of these events, or these events arising because of their own choices—the reader will view them more as a victim rather than as a hero or heroine. I don’t want to read about this person. I want to read about the guy or girl who is struggling to win at life despite all the crap thrown in their direction.
- If nothing good has ever happened in their life (or at least nothing good enough to make it into the backstory as revealed to the reader), it stretches believability for me. I’m not saying multiple awful things can’t happen to people—I know it does on a daily basis. But as a writer, when you’re crafting your characters for a romance, you’ve got to give the reader something positive. Even if you end up snatching it away.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but in my experience, less is more when it comes to backstory angst.
But what about my books, right? Look at poor Felix and Zed. The angst in the Chaos Station series is pretty heavy, especially in Felix’s backstory.
- Career and duty separates him from Zed, the love of his life, after they graduate from the academy.
- When war breaks out, Felix is captured by the alien enemy and held for four years, during which he’s starved and tortured.
- When he escapes, he discovers his parents and sister were killed early in the war when the space station they lived on was destroyed.
- He’s discharged from the military after nearly being prosecuted for treason.
But, despite all the bad, we had good things in his backstory, too.
- Elias and his father rescue Felix and basically adopt him, offering support when he needs it most.
- Elias and Felix go into business together.
- Felix gets to be the engineer on a ship he owns and he loves it.
- He finds a makeshift family in the Chaos’s crew.
So there’s a balance. It’s not all bad, and not once does Felix stop moving forward. He’s constantly making choices and taking action, both in his backstory and over the course of the Chaos Station series. Those choices and actions are all coloured by the angsty events in his backstory, but we used those events to build his character.
We also didn’t try to “fix” Felix or Zed in one book. They move forward in each book, developing, gaining ground (and sometimes losing ground), but triumphing over their pasts is a long process. In our case, it took the full five-book series for both Zed and Felix to realize their full potential, though much of their backstory is addressed in the first three books. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re envisioning a character with a very tortured backstory.
So, to wrap up: backstory angst can be a great tool, but overwhelming angst is not an automatic ticket to a super-engaging character. Remember, it’s not the angst in the character’s backstory that’s interesting, it’s how they deal with it. Use it wisely build depth into a character and a story.