Backstories – or histories – of characters help us understand their motivations, why they act the way they do, or maybe why they want what they want. Backstory provides us with an understanding of where the character is coming from, and gives them another layer of complexity.
Personalities and goals are crucial to a character, and a backstory can play a huge part in those areas. Even if the history of the character doesn’t come directly into play, or is connected to the plot, knowing what the character has gone through before can add an interesting layer.
Let’s look at Elrond, the elf we see in Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, but let’s focus on his life before that, in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It gives you some interesting facts about his backstory that gives you a new perspective about his character:
- Elrond is actually a half-elf.
- He has a twin, Elros. They were called the Half-Elven.
- Elrond and his twin were captured and raised by Feanor’s two eldest, Maedhros and Maglor, when they were after two of the Silmarils. Their family was slaughtered.
Just three facts about Elrond changed my perspective about him. I don’t remember whether or not these facts were told in LotR, books or film,* but they were interesting to learn, especially in light of what came next in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
*At present, I’m basing my knowledge from the film’s Erond, merely for a backdrop of this post. I’m not stating film Elrond as the accurate Elrond. I’m simply using film Elrond for a reference point right now.
Elrond’s backstory in The Silmarillion gives him a new light. He knows the seriousness of the situation when Sauron’s Ring surfaces. He knows the desire, the lust, for it that affects people, the desire and lust that affects Sauron. He knows there will be death and chaos. But everyone can deduce that. What I’m getting at is that Elrond has seen it before, and that, to me, makes him so much more interesting.
He knows better than anyone, better than Gandalf or Sarumon, what the lusting desire for something as powerful as the Ring can do. He’s seen it firsthand with the Silmarils. He was a victim of that lust when he and his twin were captured and their family slaughtered. It sounds as if Maedhros and Maglor raised the twins well, but all the same, they essentially kidnapped them. Elrond knows the damage this desire for something so small can do.
Another example could be Galadriel. She’s older than Elrond, and has seen far more of the effects that the Silmarils had on the sons of Feanor. But she was more or less separated from it. Elrond was forced up close.
This kind of backstory knowledge, while not vital to the plot of Lord of the Rings, gives Elrond a new layer of complexity. He understands the danger better than anyone. To him, it’s probably the Silmarils all over again. He doesn’t want his daughter to stick around to be abducted like he was. He wants her safe. She’s falling in love with a Man, someone who could be swayed by the Ring. What might happen then?
Backstory information should be revealed when it’s relevant to the plot, or to the character’s arc, but Elrond, I think, is still a good example of that. A character’s reactions or motivations can become something more when it connects with backstory, and make the character that much more complex and three-dimensional. Backstory influences the path the character will take, whether they like it or not. It’s crucial to discovering what the character wants, what he’s afraid of, or what she dreams for most.
We shouldn’t skimp on the backstory. It shapes the characters, and provides insight into why they do what they do. For Elrond, it was his experiences in the past that made him so cautious and careful of the Ring. For your character, be it hero, villain, or sidekick, what will their backstories reveal?
What do you think? :D What does your character's backstory do for your characters?
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