I recently read a feed on twitter about the negative versus positive aspects of giving a bad guy in a novel a backstory, be it harrowing or not.
What’s interesting is there seems to be a fair split between those who find it beneficial or detrimental to the story line to give the reader some concept or insight into the life and evolution of the Bad Guy character.
So, here are my thoughts…
Bad guys often have some reason as to why they are “bad”. Maybe it is a traumatic period of time that shaped their character, maybe it is an experience with an individual or group that gave them some warped perception of right and wrong, maybe it’s simply some purely mental issue, deeply ingrained in their psyche.
What seems inarguable, to me at least, is that a backstory adds to the impact of the character within the story, and lends to the story itself. It makes the plot more lush and provoking, makes the consequences more interesting, and can even make a reader conflicted.
Take, for example, A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J Maas. Amarantha is, inarguably, the bad guy. We get a bit of insight into her history through Tamlin’s monologues and through his relation to her history, through his account of her troubling experience with select mortals, but other than that, there really isn’t a deep dive into her backstory and evolution to account for her overall actions in ACOTAR . It makes it easy to hate her, easy to root for our protagonist to dismantle her empire. In this way, it aids the story by making it more focused, more driven in its purpose. Amarantha gives a clear depiction of the stakes and the consequences of each action within the progression of the plot.
Now on the other hand take Rhys, in the same book. From his description to his actions, Maas wants us to visualize him as a Bad Guy. Perhaps not to be demonized in the same way as Amarantha, but unnerving and wicked nonetheless. But unlike Amarantha, he has a very curious and powerful backstory, dolled out as it is in little bits through books one and two. The fact that even his more sinister actions can be justified by his backstory make him, arguably, one the more interesting and worthwhile character in the books.
Perhaps we may find that our “bad guy” isn’t really a bad guy at all, but simply someone working towards a worthwhile goal, but one that differs in form from our protagonist’s methods.
If Maas had simply let well enough alone, and let Rhys’ actions be his actions, regardless of his motivations, we never would have understood that the good guys are not purely good, and even the bad guys are not purely bad. We get a couple more exciting books in our hands because of this. Overall, his delving into his backstory enriches the entire series.
Where things get a little more tangled is where a bad guy is unquestionably bad, despite his backstory. The perfect example of this is the introduction of Voldemort’s backstory in Harry Potter. Sure, we may get a bit of insight into why he may have ended up the way he did, but one of the major goals in presenting his history is to giving our protagonists the means by which he can be defeated. Once again, an overall enrichment of the story, and a very important tool to utilize.
In essence, it depends on how one wants their story to unfold. Do you want the stakes to be clear, the conclusion clean? Or do you want a multi-faceted, complex presentation of what “good” and “bad” are?
Personally, I want complex, I want to be challenged in my views of a character, and I want my book to be rich and tangled.
If you, dear reader are on the other end of the rope, I would love to hear counterpoints. Drop a line!