Question via email from Faizan (Mumbai, India):
Is it possible for a protagonist not to have a back story?
The first thing that comes to mind is the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” of ‘spaghetti Westerns’: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In those movies, Clint Eastwood plays the same character and has come to be known as The Man With No Name. He has such a mysterious, shrouded personal history, even his name is nonexistent. In each movie, Eastwood’s character shows up as a stranger and goes through the entire story without revealing much, if anything, about his life leading up to FADE IN.
A contemporary example is the 2011 movie Drive. Here is the IMDB plot summary: “A mysterious Hollywood stuntman, mechanic and getaway driver lands himself in trouble when he helps out his neighbor.” The Protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is known only as Driver (that’s his character designation, no one in the story calls him that, rather his name never even comes up as a subject). We learn some key bits about Driver’s past through a few events, but still very little in the way of backstory.
So the short answer to your question is yes, it is possible for the Protagonist of a movie not to have a backstory. That is, a backstory that is unknown to the script reader and movie audience.
However the character, like all characters in a screenplay, exists within their story universe. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days per year, their whole lives. As such each character in a story has his or her particular personal history. In their own way, they have lived their lives as fully and complex as you or me.
But I like to draw a distinction between personal history, which is everything that has happened to a character in their life, and backstory. Here’s how I define that:
Backstory is comprised of specific events and dynamics in a character’s past that play directly to the experience of the character in the Present and set into motion the culminating events of their Future.
I am talking about the Present and Future of the story. Personal history is general. Backstory are those distinct narrative elements that have a direct influence on the physical and psychological journey of the characters in a story.
Some examples of backstory:
- The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne was a successful banker who was found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover.
- Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope: Luke Skywalker’s father was a Jedi knight murdered by Darth Vader, resulting in Luke living with his aunt and uncle.
- Casablanca: Rick Blaine, an American ex-patriot, fell in love with Ilse Lund, only to be jilted by her when he left Paris to flee the German army.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones was colleagues with Abner Ravenwood until Indy broke up with his daughter Marion.
- Rear Window: Jeff Jefferies is a world traveling photographer who broke his leg and is stuck in his apartment in a wheelchair.
- The Shining: Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic who was fired as a teacher due to his violent temper, moves his family to a remote hotel with a ghostly past.
- Aliens: Ellen Ripley survived a battle against a deadly alien only to discover she has returned to Earth decades after her daughter has died.
- Unforgiven: William Munny was once a vicious killer, but after marrying and becoming a father, gave up drinking and gun-fighting.
Reviewing this list, it is easy to see how the specific elements of each Protagonist’s backstory tie directly to the story’s Present. They also carve possible paths toward the future — whether it’s in Unforgiven and Munny’s violent capabilities, Aliens and Ripley’s loss as a mother, or Rear Window and Jeff’s need for adventure.
I get into this subject in great detail in my Core VIII: Time class, but let me just say this here: In a screenplay, time is not static, rather it is kinetic. We write a script in present tense, unlike most novels and short stories. Why? To convey the experience of the story happening in the moment. Therefore the influence of a character’s backstory means one way we can think about screenplay time is Present-Past: There is an inextricable link to what’s happening now, and key events and dynamics in the characters’ past. There is also, as I’ve suggested, Present-Future, but that’s a whole other area of consideration. Want to learn more? Take my Time class.
So can you tell a story where a script reader isn’t privy to the backstory of a Protagonist character? Yes, but the fact is, that character will have a backstory. Even if you don’t reveal it, you – the writer – need to know it. Of course, most Protagonists as well as other characters have backstories that do get revealed, the specific elements of their personal history that are directly relevant to the unfolding of the overall story, which is all the more reason that ‘stuff’ needs to emerge in the prep and page-writing process.
Let me close my comments by noting this: I hope the subtext of the question isn’t, “Gee, digging into a Protagonist backstory is really hard work. I wonder if I can just wing it and not give him/her any specific details, and just start writing, and forget all that jazz.”
Sure, a writer can do that. And the resulting script will almost certainly end up in the recycling bin.
In almost every movie, the Protagonist is the single most important character. Their wants, needs, conscious goals, unconscious goals, fears, desires, and backstories shape and influence virtually every aspect of a story. Generally their beginning psychological state implies where they need to go on their journey, what I call the narrative imperative. You don’t want to avoid digging into the Protagonist’s life-story, rather you should embrace it because that’s where the gold is, the backbone of your narrative, the arc of the character’s metamorphosis, the nature of relationships to other characters. The deeper you dig into their personal history, the more they reveal their personality, their voice, their psyche, and all the rest.
In a way, a Protagonist’s backstory might be the single most important area of research and discovery in getting in touch with and unearthing the story.
My advice: Engage that character. Ask him/her questions. Interview them. Encourage them to talk through sit-downs or monologues. Delve into their past by writing a biography. They want you to tell their story. Reach out to them. Reach into them. The heart, soul, blood and guts of your story lie within your characters… especially the Protagonist.
After you’ve found out what you can about the Protagonist and other characters, what you choose to reveal of their backstory is up to you as a writer. They can be The Character With No Name. But in order to know your story well enough to tell it in a compelling, entertaining way, the bottom line is even if you keep the script reader in the dark… you need to know that shit.
Readers, what are your thoughts on this question? Head to comments, curious to see your reactions and thoughts.