Friday, July 1, 2011


I love Disney's new movie, Tangled.  the graphics are gorgeous, the running jokes are actually funny, there's plenty of action, and the main characters are easy to relate to.  

The hero's back-story got me thinking about a certain element of writing, though.  You see, his back-story is mostly implied.  First he refused to give a back-story at all, and then when he finally did divulge his past, he still managed to gloss over it.  

The scene kind of reminded me of Dmitri in the animated Anastasia who's back-story is a) he once worked as a ragged kitchen boy and b) when asked if he'd miss his home he said, `St. Petersburg is just a place I once lived.  End of story.'   In other words, the movie makers were content to imply back-story rather than lay it out for their audience.

Implied back-story can be really effective.  It invites the audience to take part in the story by allowing them to invent all sorts of details for themselves.  It can also frustrating.  You're left never knowing for sure where the characters are coming from.  They had a whole life that you never get to hear about. 

On the other hand, you have the writers like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo who want to tell you everything.  Not only will they give you the life story of the main characters from the time of their great-grandparents, they'll also tell you about the great-grandparents of everyone said character comes into contact with.  (Victor Hugo is especially prone to this, which is why his novels are longer than the Telephone directory.)  

The result can be a world that feels very real.  Minor characters aren't just walk-on parts.  They have a whole life beyond the story.  On the down side, the main story can easily get lost among all the side characters.

I don't think there's really a right or wrong when it comes to how much back-story is good.  It's a matter of what fits the story you're telling.  Me, I like the lengthy back-stories.  (If I didn't, I'd steer clear of Victorian literature.)  What about you all?  Do you prefer when authors go into the character's life stories, or would you rather have the past life of the characters implied?  Or do you like a nice balance of the two?

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