Granted, there are quite a few heroes and heroines suffering from childhood trauma or guilt over past sins: Harry Dresden, Harry Potter, and Ned Stark to name a few of my favorites. Yet not all protagonists suffer so much inward trauma, though my current inability to think of an example says a great deal about how rare they are. (While editing this post I remembered that Buffy Summers has no traumatic past.)
Still, the concept of the hero with a dark past goes back millennia. Greek myth alone teems with it; though, many a god or demigod didn’t let it bother them too much. Poseidon did not take it too personally that is father ate him. Hercules lost little sleep over the fact that Hera sought his death.
However, before we go further, let’s first look at how we might define a bleak past. Is it emotional or physical trauma that still affects the character? If the trauma occurred but the character has already moved past it or it does not affect them, does that count? Is it dark choices the character once made that for which they now seek to make amends? Is it as simple as a character losing a parent or sibling through natural causes? How much suffering or trauma must a character undergo to qualify for a bleak past?
Unfortunately, the answer to this ranges widely. I’m sure each of you has your personal opinion. In my mind, normal events, like the death of a parent or a few heartbreaks, don’t count. After all, these are natural parts of human existence. But when your aunt and uncle start locking you in the cupboard beneath the stairs, you reach beyond the ordinary. So for the moment, let’s define a bleak past as one containing extraordinary—as in does not occur in normal childhood or life—elements or one so fraught with heartache that no room remains for happiness.
To answer the question, I went through my collection of writing books and pulled any volume that dealt with characters. Not a single one suggested creating a dark past for a hero. Not one advised inventing secrets, trauma, or anything else for a protagonist’s background, which suggests that these elements are not necessary for great story or a compelling character.
Why then do authors include them? Why do some readers enjoy them?
The closest explanation I found was from Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. “As a writer, you want to create complex characters because they feel more real to readers. Readers know that they themselves are not simple inside and tend to dismiss or distrust one-dimensional characters. Of course, this depends on the genre you are writing. In some genres, such as adventure stories, the simple, all-conquering hero is fine. Nobody wants James Bond to have an oedipal fixation, and if he does, we don’t want to hear about it,” (page 51). Kress’s words suggest that the tolerance for a dark past varies by genre. Literary fiction is more tolerant than adventure, for example. I suspect this is linked to the level of character development a genre encourages. Literary is all about character, and James Bond doesn’t need layer upon layer reveled to remain totally awesome.
However, as genre is a convention created by booksellers for categorization and shelving purposes and so readers can more easily locate stories they like, let’s step out of that constraint. While genre conventions may influence choices an author makes in character development and plotting, they by no means define them. In the end, most authors are telling a story about characters they care about, genre conventions or no.
Outside of genre, we are left with broader strokes to identify trends. For this, I turned to character archetypes and combed through The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes &Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. There are numerous resources out there on archetypes, but I like The Complete Writer’s Guide because it does an excellent job of viewing those archetypes through the lens of character creation and story, not as a literary device, but as an author’s tool.
As I poured through the book, I noticed that some archetypes are much more disposed to dark backgrounds than others. Consider these examples from that book:
The BAD BOY: “Secrets from his past formed the BAD BOY. A BAD BOY grew up on the streets, even if he lived in a mansion. Families have provided nothing but pain and hurt for the BAD BOY. Perhaps they merely ignored him, but more likely his family abused or abandoned him. He might have been a runaway; living on the streets was a better alternative to what awaited him at home,” (page 11).
The LOST SOUL: “An isolating event in his past defined the LOST SOUL. He might have been a normal child to begin with—maybe slightly solemn and given to introspection, but willing to smile and play with others. But a defining event isolated him from society, shaping this boy into the man he would become. Illness or injury kept him apart, or maybe it was the jeering prejudice of the other kids. Either way, his response was to remove himself, withdrawing to an inner refuge where no one could touch him … or hurt him,” (page 27).
The WAIF: “The WAIF was molded by her sense of isolation. Sweet and unsure, this baby girl searched every adult face looking for the love she so desperately desired, but never found the answer in anyone’s gaze. She was an orphan, whether literally or simply because her family failed to give her the love and attention she craved. She never found a support system—which was the one thing she truly needed,” (page 77).
Even the descriptions hold sorrow. Comparatively, such archetypes as the CHARMER, the CHIEF, the SPUNKY KID, and the NURTURER come with a sense of goodness of life. The BAD BOY, LOST SOUL, and WAIF all needed painful events to mold them into their archetype. Such is not necessarily true for the others.
So perhaps, in addition to bleak pasts, readers grow weary of certain archetypes. Are archetypes, like subgenres, capable of coming in and out of vogue? Certainly, certain genres and subgenres encourage some archetypes over others. For example, it’s rather difficult to sell a WAIF heroine in the romance genre these days, and the era of PROFESSORS and LIBRARIAN in the science fiction genre has faded. Are we moving away from BAD BOYS and LOST SOULS? If urban fantasy is any indication, the current trend is toward WARRIORS and CRUSADERS.
What are your thoughts? Are dark backgrounds becoming cliché? Can archetypes come in and out of popularity, and if so, which ones are on the rise? What qualifies as a dark past, and what are normal elements of life? Do you like heroes with dark pasts? Does genre play a part in any of this?