When furnishing characters with motivations, backstory and so forth, I often find that the more one tries to pin particular actions down to a specific incident in a character’s past, the less convincing it is. A classic example of this is the abused-becomes-abuser principle. To be fair, it is sometimes done well, but more often than not I’m unconvinced.
Sometimes the most compelling characters can be defined by their lack of backstory or baggage – particularly characters in stories about obsession or revenge. Examples from film include Get Carter, Vertigo, Zero Dark Thirty and A Fistful of Dollars (or just about any gunslinger western for that matter). Even a story like Schindler’s List does well to avoid pinning down a precise moment or reason Oscar Schindler decided to bankrupt himself to save Jews rather than continuing as a war profiteer.
I find characters more interesting if their actions aren’t necessarily easy to explain in a pat way. Human beings are complex, irrational creatures and their actions and motives are erratic. A person’s actions can often be explained simply by the mood they happen to be in. They don’t necessarily stem from a great dark secret in their past. And even if they do, it isn’t strictly necessary to reveal it.
A close study of the various drafts of the Chinatown screenplay reveals the famous incest revelation at the end of Act 2 was somewhat softened in an earlier draft by a lengthy backstory concerning complicated emotional reasons why the villain acted the way he did. This explanation was wisely excised and replaced with a simple exchange wherein the Jack Nicolson character asks Faye Dunaway whether she was raped by the man in question, to which she chillingly replies no. The denial is brilliant, because it maintains the cruelty of the villain whilst introducing all manner of ambiguity as to how the terrible state of affairs came about.
In a similar way, I have often found myself excising great chunks of backstory from my novels simply because they are too “on the nose”. In the first draft of Children of the Folded Valley (which I hope to release soon), my antagonist also had a lengthy history that gave specific reasons for his behaviour. But ultimately I felt he was a much more compelling character without that detail in the text of the novel – partly because the narrative was meant to be seen through the eyes of the protagonist who would have no knowledge of these events.
At the end of Uncle Flynn, Max’s Father changes quite a lot. Originally I wrote an entire chapter explaining how he experienced his own peculiar adventure at the same time as Max, which taught him (frankly in a rather heavy-handed way) that he was missing what was important in life. But I ditched the entire subplot after I concluded that the book was meant to focus on Max. Besides, simply finding his son alive after all the dangers he had gone through would be enough to make any father question his priorities and rekindle the important relationships he had neglected. The change in Max’s father is inherent in the story – a given that doesn’t need to be explained.
On the other hand, in my sequel to George goes to Mars (soon to be released), there is a character who is prejudiced against Martians for a very specific reason that is later revealed – a simple cause/effect piece of character development. For every rule I have, there is an exception…