Backstories, we’ve all got them. When writing a novel I give a backstory to all my characters, even the secondary ones, even if the information never makes it to the page.
I want them to feel like real people, and real people interact with others, based in part, on their past experiences. If those experiences have been bad, painful, or scarring, then we’ll carry that into our relationships.
In romance, there’s the wounded hero/heroine trope, a character that is scarred physically or emotionally, and the love of their partner helps them heal. It’s one of my favorite tropes when written well since it delivers maximum dramatic tension/angst, my reader catnip.
In life, having a complex and difficult backstory utterly stinks. I learned this first hand. It is not fun. I much rather have had a standard adolescence and young adulthood. Instead, it wasn’t until I was about twenty-six that I passed through the drama and had my stuff together. Jesus found me where I was and I made peace with my past. When I write about the power of forgiveness over bitterness, it’s from personal experience.
One lesson I learned was that my pain, no matter how justified I was in feeling it, did not give me a free pass to hurt anyone else. Being wounded didn’t excuse me from being kind to others. Walking through life as a human prickly-pear was not okay, no matter what I had been through. There are several moments in my life, when I acted or spoke out of my own devastation, that I deeply regret. There are relationships that were forever altered by my thoughtlessness, my lashing out. I can happily say that most have mended, but the truth is that they will never be what they could have been had I been thinking of others first.
One of the secondary characters in the book I’m currently working on, The Redemption Road, has a pretty tragic backstory. She’s justified in her anger, her pain. But she takes it too far when she starts to inflict it on the person trying hardest to help her. Since she’s a teenager she gets more room than an adult would, but eventually, the main character has to serve her the hard truth that her pain doesn’t make her nasty behavior okay.
What makes for dramatic tension in a book is excruciating to live through in real life. We’ve all had, or know someone who has, those roller-coaster relationships where the highs are the sweetest thing on earth and the lows are devastating. Great to read, painful to live.
So, what is a person in pain to do? Do they have to remain quiet, muffling themselves so no one feels bad? No. Adamantly no. When in pain the best thing to do is to reach out. I’m a vocal advocate for ‘being real’ with those around us. Drop the social niceties and reach out when in pain. Instead of being the broody, haunted hero, open up. Let people in. It’s hard, but it improves with repetition. It’s also an important stop on the road to finding a happy ending.