Ok. We’ve had a number of posts across Castalia, Google+, etc., recently delving into the necessity of backstory, the modern plague therof, and how it’s hobbled storytelling. Generally speaking, I agree with the position Jeffro has taken, and a lot of people have weighed in with good things to say on the topic. So why dipping my oar in?
Because, in my opinion, John Wick (have not yet seen Ch.2) is damn near a “perfect” movie – one of the few I put in that category along with The usual Suspects – and arguably a perfect action movie, and has been held up by Jeffro as committing these sins.
I disagree. I disagree that it commits these sins in any significant way, but also that to the degree it has “backstory”, it is utterly necessary and not wasted screen time like so many other examples – other recent big budget movies and even a couple from one of my favorite studios.
Now, before I can comment further on John Wick proper I’ll have to take the time to see it again – and maybe even Chapter 2, but there is some groundwork to be laid so that, when I finally put JW under the microscope, I am relying on more recent memories than the three times I watched it in a week a year ago.
Yeah, I liked it.
So, first: Are backstories inherently bad?
No. Sometimes we have to hang a lampshade on a character or provide enough information about their past to ensure that actions in the present make sense, and don’t break our believability in the character. “Why the fuck did he do that” is rarely a question you want to have your reader or audience asking. Even if the action was not one they would have expected, an event or revelation earlier in the story needs to have established some trait of character, or something in their background, that the reader or watcher goes “ok, that makes sense”. Even when you do want you audience asking “why did he do that” you need to have established enough trust in the character that they’re willing to wait for the results to play out, and it still needs to make sense, fitting in with what you already knew about the character, and what you learned since before the “payoff.”
One way to do this is to show where the person came from.
As noted, this has become abused – almost the only way storytellers know how to reveal a character (and thus a sign of a crappy or lazy writer). See Conan the movie with Arnie, vs the original stories. Or Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. As has been pointed out – in the books, or the Eastwood character, we aren’t shown a long exposition of where each man came from. Instead, we are shown just enough about their character, in bits and pieces, over time, to make sense of what they are doing, but at no point from the beginning of the story do they act in a way that contradicts what we’ve seen of them, or learn of them by the choices they make and how the people around them react.
In the movie, we get the full blown “and he was a kid, and the bad guy killed his mom and da’, and he was sold as a slave, and…”
“But it’s an origin story”
OK. Nothing inherently wrong with origin stories either. The Frank Miller hardbound Dark Knight/Batman Year One holds a place of pride on my bookshelf, and of course incorporates some of the origin story in both. I like the first Burton Batman, and all three of the Nolan movies – I’ll watch anything by the Nolans no matter what it’s about until they screw up a couple times.
Yet, Frank Miller doesn’t just do origin stories (300 anyone?), and the first Nolan Batman movie isn’t the strongest or best. Why?
Look. An origin story is a story of growth and transformation all by itself. Yes, stories of moral and psychological growth of the main character are a time-honored type of story that have their own name: bildungsroman. But origin stories are hardly the only way to write growth and transformation. If all you do is origin stories you are a lazy writer who can’t imagine other ways to have a “character arc” and personal transformation. You especially cannot answer the question of “where do you go from there?”. Thus the Star Trek reboots, the endless Spiderman reboots, and all the other reboots. Because origin stories are a cheap way to provide structure for growth without asking further questions.
These questions can be asked though: the sequel Nolan Batman movies actually had arcs of growth and transformation on Batman’s part, on Wayne’s part, on Gordon’s part. We saw the origins of Robin and Two face, sure, but they were not the main characters here, and occurred as organic elements of the story. The Joker? He was elemental, and never really explained, just wanted the world to burn, and it was the moral quandaries posed that forced Batman to grow. Even the time spent discussing Bane’s background, and the background of the real “bad guy” of the third movie was dropped in over time, as needed, and instead we open up with things happening.
It’s also why Civil War and Winter Soldier were frankly better movies and stories than the first Captain America. They too had growth and transformation without having to tell the origin story of absolutely everything. You actually have time to explore the character beyond “how I got started”.
They didn’t need to tell you where Batman, or Cap came from, but their actions were consistent with their character, definable by the choices made from the very beginning of each story even if you didn’t know the “backstory” or origin.
You get what you focus on. Origin stories are only one kind of basic structure, and if you keep taking time in the movie to tell the origin stories of everyone, especially the protagonist, you either end up with all origin movies, wasting precious time telling the origin before getting to the real story, or ridiculously long movies with large chunks of the beginning wasted.
Worse, the backstories and origin stories we get these days are so over the top. Or, used to explain why the bad guy isn’t really that bad instead of being about growth, or even worse, as L. Jagi Lamplight Wright noted, why they’re really the victim.
Or you get a movie where the mar-Rey Sue doesn’t even begin to protag until halfway through the damn story, because you spent a whole bunch of time showing off her childhood, watching her mom die, ad nauseum.
So, should our characters not have origins?
Bullshit, there’s always a backstory – or at least an archetype, a character. Do you think the man with no name did not have a background? A moral code? If you watched The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises could you have figured out who and what he was, even if you didn’t know the story of seeing his parents killed? Conan had one too. We know who these characters are by how they act, what they choose to do when faced with a decision. The “backstory”, as I mentioned earlier, is only necessary when needed to provide consistency to bridge what we see with what has gone before, or to better understand a character in a way relevant to the story, and can usually be provided in dribs and drabs as the story moves along.
There’s a segment in the red letter media vivisection of the Star Wars prequels where they have people describe characters in the first movie – “A New Hope” – and then try to describe characters in The Phantom Menace without resorting to their appearance or their jobs. Who they were, their personalities. The look of embarrassment as they realized they couldn’t really describe TPM characters said more than an essay.
Adding an origin story or backstory at the beginning violates the following rules of writing. Show, don’t tell. Every second/word is precious. I’ve covered those already above, if not explicitly stating it.
It also violates “start the story at the last possible moment before things get rolling.”
Of course the story exists in an environment with a history and a future, where things have come together. Yet all too often we waste precious time telling the story of “how things got this way” when we can simply show you by implication, or in bits and pieces, or by how people behave, the choices they make, and how others react.
And of course we need a “setup” to explain what started the ball rolling: what was discovered, or hidden, or lost, or desired. There has to be something to make our intrepid hero decide to stop doing whatever else he would normally do and do something different. At some point – even if it’s something beyond their control that would have happened in the course of their normal lives, they have to make a choice to put their feet on the path to awesome.
I’m going to pick on Pixar for an example of “backstory done wrong.” Let’s take Up.
It pains me to do this because, bluntly, the first ten minutes of the movie is one of the best love stories you’ll ever see. It also skillfully shows you why he wanted to go adventuring, why he didn’t, why it’s in part a memorial to his wife who wished to also, why there’s more to the crotchety old man, and why he chose the method he did to break free.
It’s a brilliant short story. It would have been an incredible standalone that ended with the house taking off, and a smile.
In the context of the rest of the movie, as much as I liked it, it’s a drag. Ten minutes spent that is “I told you this story so I could tell you this other one.” Works fine as a Cosby joke, but it’s a distraction from the main story. It could have been interspersed through the rest of the movie in hints, or even integrated with him cleaning his house up preparing for liftoff, and shortened immensely.
Compare it to The Incredibles.
We start with a prologue. No backstory, just wall – to – wall action, with a distracting fanboy causing issues in apprehending the villain of the moment. The resulting carnage and collateral damage leads immediately to a quick montage of how the heroes were reigned in. Gods walked among us, but they were not perfect, and they fell. Our next view of Mr Incredible is his absurd straightjacket of a normal job as a worker drone, beholden to the whims of petty tyrants and small men, with a normal car far too small for him, and a family life he doesn’t appreciate because what made him awesome, Incredible even, has been beaten down.
And the action starts rolling again. Syndrome takes advantage of what he’s already doing to lay a trap for him, Mr. Incredible gets in touch with his inner greatness, and mayhem ensues. The movie is self-aware enough to employ a little meta humor, but backstory? Frozone, Mrs. and Mrs. Incredible, their kids, you discover them all by how they behave. The only character in the whole thing that has any backstory within the movie is Syndrome – and while he had “one bad day” – one gets the strong impression from his neediness and lack of common sense even as a child that if it hadn’t been that day, some other day would have thrown him into a loop. He has no remorse, no “I was wrong” moment, no moment where he thinks of what the people around him need. He is a selfish git from day one.
And it’s all incorporated in acting as a spoiler to Mr Incredible’s prologue. Syndrome’s hurt feelz were nothing compared to the persecution the heroes suffered, but he turned villain, and the heroes reclaimed their awesome.
Also look at the marines in Aliens.
The few minutes of screen time waking up, eating together, and working out establish every marine in the group, from seeing their names pop up in the computer screen to the first drop, with just a few seconds of dialog. “Vasquez, anyone ever mistake you for a man? No, you?”. You know exactly who these people are.
Cameron used to be a good director.
Speaking of Cameron, the Abyss is instructive. He dragged Orson Scott Card in to write the novel almost directly from the script and actual filmed scenes. Card was so inspired upon seeing the script and meeting the actors that he wrote a backstory for each character the first night. The actors saw the results, and incorporated it into their acting.
The backstory was there. It infused every action the actors took in playing their roles. It wasn’t shown.
On the other hand, Card kept that backstory in the book version. It really didn’t help. The book could have started from the opening scene of the movie and lost nothing but page count.
So yes, you have to know who your characters are, but telling the backstory is not needed for every character, not even your protagonists, in every case, nor does every movie have to be an origin story.
Next up – a quick look at where all this came from.