Backstories: Why They Hinder

Jim Halsey: Hey mister, do you need a ride?

Jim Halsey: To a gas station or something?

John Ryder: Sure, to a gas station.

John Ryder: Gas stations have cigarettes.
Jim Halsey: What about gas?
John Ryder: I don’t need gas.
Jim Halsey: What do you want?
[John starts laughing]
Jim Halsey: What’s so funny?
John Ryder: That’s what the other guy said.
Jim Halsey: What other guy?
John Ryder: That guy back there, the one we just passed. The guy who picked me up before you did.
Jim Halsey: That was him in there?
John Ryder: Sure it was. He couldn’t have walked very far.
Jim Halsey: Why’s that?
John Ryder: Because I cut off his legs, and his arms, and his head. And I’m going to do the same to you.

Forewarning, this movie is a prime example of a mid-80’s horror film. It’s rawboned, and unnerving. Most importantly, it has a level of visceral brutality that is no longer present in our common film fare. If you have a stomach for it, watch it. You’re in for a treat.

That ladies, and gentlemen, is a series of lines from the movie, “The Hitcher” starring Rutger Hauer, (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke) cast as the titular Hitcher. C. Thomas Howell as the kind stranger, Jim Halsey. You may recognize him from ET, and of course as Ponyboy from the movie adaptation of, “The Outsiders”.

This is a post about background stories for characters. In both Narrative Gaming, and in fiction itself. The topic came to mind as I was dwelling on the horror movies that formed my youth. Halloween of course, Hitcher, The Thing, etc. I started thinking about what made those movies frightening. I followed that thread of thinking as far back as I could get it. Which led me to HP Lovecraft. I had the pleasure of reading his works at an age where I had no idea what on earth he was talking about, but my Heman night-light stayed on for weeks afterwards.

His famous line rings true in most things that are fiction-based.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

When the chips are down on the table, deep biological fear is generated on unknown factors. Psychologically speaking, there is something you have no knowledge of, and it must be investigated to determine its threat level to your person/family, or tribe/peer group. With two known factors of fear being the most prevalent actors on the human mind.

Biological fear is a result of chemical reactions from certain stimuli. Which affect your mind in a self-serving effort to make you survive a situation that has threat, or carries the potential of threat. We really began understanding this better in the early 80’s as psychology began higher quality studies into the chemical make-up of fear. This is a universal type of fear that we all endure. It crosses cultures, it is indifferent to your beliefs, or creed. It’s purely chemical. This link, though quite dated,(Here) is to an excellent article on the subject. If you are interested in learning more about this level of fear.

The second type of fear is less biologically-based and is the result of emotional/trained response. This can be a very large catch-all term. It could mean you were bitten by a dog during your formative years and thus you are now afraid of dogs. (A common fear in fact)  Or you are conditioned to be afraid of the stimulus presented by others through body language or actual language. (A typical anxiety disorder) Something occurred to you, that your mind made a formula out of. If condition A occurs: response D will most likely dominate the encounter afterwards.

I might be making this complicated when there is no need. To not sound condescending I’ll simply state. Something happened to you, or a loved one; by an outside agent, that resulted in a negative response. Example: A spider bit your cousin in the garden. It made her arm swell. It was large and moved quickly. Henceforth, you are now alarmed by quick moving creatures, or spiders in general.

This is emotional fear, and is affected by culture, beliefs, and creeds. Things that a western mind would be frightened of; a person of  Asia might not care about. Living food is a great example. Having eaten live squid I can attest to the idea of it being anxiety producing. I’m by no means a squeamish person, I spend most Autumns with my hands inside of animals I’ve killed. The thought of a living creature entering me as food was fear inducing.

My friends (From Tokyo) thought it was hilarious. It’s a food they eat when they want to go for something a bit more fancy than ramen. The American equivalent to going to Applebee’s, instead of White Castle. I mention it only because I want to highlight to you that this level of fear is controllable, and can be conditioned. The other cannot. You have no power over it. It’s purely primate brain activity. Flight, or fight.

 So, having written that patch of boring foundation work, I’d like to now address the title of this article. Backstory: Why it Hinders.

The most obvious fiction in recent memory that I can think of is Halloween. The first iteration. Michael Meyers was a large, hulking brute. Capable of feats of strength and stealth that inspire biochemical fear with his presence alone. The mask and knife were added to further hammer this home. They are emotional fears. Things we have learned to fear. Humans, generally speaking; are afraid to not see faces. It’s unnerving for us, because context clues and body language fill in unknown gaps that our verbal language doesn’t always provide information for.

This large beast of a man, who stalked people for sport became an icon of fear. His story was foggy, hidden. We knew he was mentally ill. We have no idea how he got to the point where he put a Captain Kirk mask on, and decided it was time to destroy. The horror in this tale lays firmly in the unknown. That’s evocative. In the unknown you can place all of your little fears. The things that you may or may not acknowledge that frighten you. It’s a blank canvas where you can write your own story.

Then came Rob Zombie. If you didn’t hear an audible sigh from me while writing that, then just imagine you did. His remake was grotesque in it’s violence, much like its predecessor. It was brutal, and filled with unnerving scenes. Carving people, executing an evil plan only he knew of in the dark recesses of his mind.

Yet it was not frightening to me on any level. Not because I have aged since the first movie. I can assure you, there are still a few Lovecraft tales that make me wish I had a Heman nightlight. It’s because Rob Zombie spent a good portion of the movie showing us ‘how’ he became what he was. He was moved from an unknown agent of danger and fear, to a known and mundane threat. A murderer, however insane is still just a murderer. Perhaps I’m jaded, I grew up in danger constantly. I’m just not able to be frightened of masks or, hell even knives. I’ve been conditioned to it.

We even get treated to a scene where he is seen performing an act of justifiable savagery. He kills men who are responsible for the rape of what can be assumed is multiple catatonic women in the mental hospital. It was actually a pleasure to watch that part. I have a burning hatred of those who prey upon the helpless. I realized then I was becoming sympathetic to an agent of evil. It ruined it for me. The backstory of Michael Meyers killed his ability to be frightening. He went from an unknown hostile agent, to a gimmicky mentally ill killer. I’m not impressed. Also Rob, if you ever read this I’m sorry for bashing you. Thunderkiss 65 is a great song.

That is what makes the movie Hitcher so damnably frightening. Rutger Hauer’s character does all of his malicious deeds and you NEVER. KNOW. WHY. He is brutal for unknown reasons. His cruelty is unmatched in almost any movie I’ve ever seen. How he was not nominated for some award for this role is beyond me. Maybe because it was an ‘HBO’ movie? Which wasn’t particularly celebrated at the time. Go see it. It’s an example of multi-level fear of both the primordial and the emotional sort.

There was a remake of it too. I didn’t watch it. I’m done with Hollywood’s BS, and will no longer fund their destruction of western culture. Bluntly speaking, they can take a long walk off a short pier.

Back to the topic at hand. I believe that when you leave ‘gaps’ in narrative you allow for others to fill them in. Think of the famous movie, “A Space Odyssey 2001” by Kubrick. There are so many gaps that people can barely understand the film. To me though, I hold it as an excellent exercise in audience participation. I’ve a fertile mind I suppose. I have filled, and refilled every gap in that movie. Over and over again. I still dwell on it sometimes. If during the final scenes an animatronic alien came out and explained. “Hey man, those black stones; were total accidents. We are sorry to have made you sentient. Who would’ve thought that our used batteries could cause that? Well, anyway …. wanna be god?”

We’ve discussed villains a plenty so let’s grab a heroic example.

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Here we have a strong woman, who has the courage, and conviction to face down that which she opposes. Now, I know she’s a real-life hero and she does have a backstory. However, it’s unknown to us. This powerful heroic figure is made almost mythical for her mysterious origins. It’s a place where you can write in what caused her to become such a potent force against the patriarchy. There she stands, correcting the people around her. The foes of freedom, their very thoughts are an affront to decent society. She only has to raise her own voice because of the dimness of her opposition. This women combines delicate beauty, with passionate strength. Look at her eyes, you can see nothing but compassion there. Her foe, the disgusting pig-beasts. Servants of the patriarchy are unaware of what even controls them. She guides them to correct thinking. She challenges them to reconsider the power structures they hold so dear. Sometimes, just sometimes… I see a powerful force for good and I am moved.

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Yes, that was satire. Beowulf. Here is a man who is known only as a hero. We know not of his deeds. Yet forward he comes to do battle with darkness and to save a people from certain doom. This of course as above allows us to fill in the gaps. Why is he a hero? What did he do prior to being summoned to help against Grendel? He is an unknown agent of good. A prime archetypal example of the ‘Heroic Man’. I loved this tale as a kid. I still do. I have every available English translation of it and one in Gaelige I think. (Might be in the attic)

I pictured all sorts of deeds this man did prior to him coming to the aid of the Danes. Maybe he’s killed wizards, dragons? What about even darker foes? The blank canvas of his past allows you to paint a picture of your choosing. Again, I find this concept would be ruined if we knew he was heroic because he killed some dick-headed king in the east somewhere. Or he was angry and kicked a tree over in one try a couple years back.

Having written all this I want to say I don’t think backstory is the wrong thing to do. I’ve written them, and they can be a vital component to a narrative. I’m just saying wield that pen a bit lightly. The mind, that wonderfully mysterious thing that sits behind your eyes has ways and means of its own. Let it work.

While I was thinking this post over an E-buddy ™ of mine: https://twitter.com/RawleNyanziFTL

which is someone who’s opinion I have a profound respect for, posted an article about backstory himself except his was in praise of it! I didn’t want to read it because I did not want to bias myself. So, now that I’m done here that’s where I’m headed! You can find the post here!

Godspeed my friends,

ESM

 

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5 thoughts on “Backstories: Why They Hinder

  1. Quite a post, and quite a bit of food for thought. I think that the mania for backstories is also caused by a desire to cash in on a profitable media franchise. To get new sequels and prequels, they’ll just fill in bits of story that were left blank before.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Other than what Rawle mentioned, I think that there are a couple of reasons that complicated backstories (even for villains) are popular.

    1) “Redeeming” Evil. Person X is not really evil, just misunderstood. Or Person X was hurt by someone, so it justifies their atrocities. Evil cannot be evil in the modern world. In order to “redeem” evil in this way, you need a detailed and complicated backstory. I think this is stupid, but it is the way a lot of people think. I know real redemption is something different, but this is best word I could think of.

    (DIGRESSION: In Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, there was a section when Ransom realized that sometimes evil is simply evil and it must be fought with physical weapons and that it is right to do so. However, make try and make that point today. People will call for your arrest!)

    2) Misplaced show versus telling in storytelling. When telling a story, some basic advice to show, not tell.

    In Beowulf, we are told Beowulf is a great hero. Why?

    His future actions prove it (which falls under “show”). However, when he is introduced, the reader is simply told that he is a great hero (which could be seen as “tell”). Therefore, giving him an epic backstory could be seen as a way to show his heroism.

    Of course it has been a while since I read Beowulf, so correct me if I am wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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