Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Backstory Cacciatore

Once again, I’m speaking as a writer with nothing on my resume to defend the authority of my pen on the subject of screenwriting. What I am defending here today is the absence of backstories. Character development is not dependent on backstories and backstories are not a substitute for character development.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post is meant to infer, suggest, intimate, hint, or insinuate that Mario Andretti is a hot headed reckless Italian. Please don’t sick your lawyers on me, Mr. Andretti, this is a hypothetical example for education purposes only.

Since I argue much better by clacking on my keyboard than in person, I warn you now that it will be very difficult to disagree with my position. If you prefer to spend your time digesting opinions that ignite in you a belligerent ire, you may want pop in or the Washington Post for some choice political blogs.

I’m really quite sick of aspiring screenwriters claiming that an antagonist without a backstory is not a well developed character. These two phrases, “backstory” and “developed”, are not synonymous. The measurement of a well drawn villain and/or antagonist is not whether or not he comes with a compelling backstory.

Ever been in the passenger seat of a car driven by a maniac? By maniac, I mean a guy who jumps curbs, drives over medians, takes out a few mailboxes and doesn’t hesitate to roll down an embankment or gun it through a red light at a busy intersection. If he’s flippin’ the bird at a guy wielding a sawed off shotgun out his window, do you really care WHY either one of them became an insane driver? No. You’re in the middle of a nightmarish adventure, caught up in the moment (oh how I hate that phrase) and only interested in getting out of this situation with your body parts still in tact. No backstory necessary.

Okay, same situation. You’re the passenger in a maniac’s car. But this maniac happens to be Mario Andretti. Now, if you don’t know who Mario Andretti is, then a little backstory here may be helpful, interesting or even a little important. You do, after all, need to know that he is a racecar driver. It might raise your confidence level in the driver and lesson your fear of becoming road pizza. But the driver’s character as a daredevil is demonstrated by the way he drives, not by the fact that he’s Mario Andretti. And, do we care, as we face the dude with the sawed off shotgun, that Mario grew up in post-Mussolini Italy and became a racecar driver after seeing Ascari compete in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza?

In The Fugitive, we don’t know how Gerrard became the uncompromising diehard that he is. We know nothing about his backstory. When his partner is held at gunpoint, Gerrard shoots the gunman without negotiating so we can guess that maybe at some point, Gerrard came out on the losing end of a compromise, but we don’t’ know that. He says simply that he doesn’t bargain. No backstory, but a well drawn character.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, we know that Barbossa stole the Black Pearl from Jack Sparrow so we have a little history. But Barbossa is well spoken and a shrewd negotiator so we can guess that he may have been a lawyer in the King’s court before he became a pirate but he could just as easily have been a banker. So, why did he become a pirate? No idea and we really don’t need to know.

We, as writers, need to know the backstory for most of our characters. If we don’t, then we may not know our own story very well. But some writers try to use backstory as a substitute for character development and what they get is a cacciatore of backstories instead of well drawn characters.

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