Tragic Backstories — in Real Life and Fiction

Normally I post quotes from my blog posts as a way of isolating cool phrases or interesting thoughts. This time, however, I pulled a quote from “Is Your Villain Too Sympathetic?“, and I came away with a quote about “Having a Damaged Past.”

I realized that there’s more to that idea than I covered in the blog post about villainy. Particularly, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Nephew a couple years ago when he was around 10 years old.

See, Nephew’s father (my brother-in-law), died four years ago. After a long, recurring battle with Lupus, he passed away when his son (my nephew) was 8 years old.

Since then, I’ve been keenly aware of when I watch movies with Nephew. Whenever a character suffers a loss, his lips tighten, his eyes soften, and his jaw tilts almost imperceptibly downward.

Over time, that will change. Someday, his eyes will harden as his jaw tilts upward. What was once sadness is now defiance.


When Nephew was nine, we were watching a movie—I don’t remember which—when he finally sighed in frustration.

“Why does someone always have to die?” he asked. The main character’s parent or sibling or guardian had died, opening the movie to a sad soundtrack.

He was asking two questions at once. He was asking why do movies and books always give the main character a tragic past? and why did my dad die?

I didn’t know what to say for a minute. What other children might take for granted as part of the story, he could now connect to. I didn’t know how to answer the second question, so I answered the first.

“A lot of heroes have a tragic past, whether it’s losing loved ones or enduring hardships… It’s…” I pause, wanting to say the right thing. “It makes them stronger, you know? Going through something difficult gives people a different perspective. It can make them brave. It can make them want to fight for a good cause. It makes them value the people in their lives more highly. It can make them heroes.”

He stared at the TV while I tried to read his face. The smoothness of his youthful skin didn’t reveal a furrowed brow or squinting eyes.

I continued, “I know that when authors write books, they want their readers to be able to connect with the heroes who then go on to do great things. Just think of Harry Potter, The Lion King, and Percy Jackson. People—and lions—who survive difficult things can become capable of incredible things.”

He maybe smiled or maybe frowned, but definitely nodded. Maybe he didn’t know what to say back.

Maybe he was trying to tell me that he would rather have a dad than a compelling back story. Maybe he had never tried to think about his future in a positive way since his father passed.

We watched the rest of whatever was on TV—a movie no doubt filled with comedy and a dash of tragedy. I just wanted him to think about his situation, about why authors and screenwriters give the hero a damaged back story.


I didn’t tell him that villains go through tragedy as well, and the only thing that separates heroes from villains is how they react to that pain. Heroes use their pain to make them strong, empathetic, and brave. Villains let their pain make them weak, desperate, and cruel.

But I knew that things aren’t as simple in this life as having heroes and villains. Pain causes people to do wonderful and terrible things, often in the same moments. It’s up to each person to decide how to use that fuel.


Usually, my stories and blog posts and books are informed by what happens in my life.  This time, it was the other way around. Stories and books and movies and histories and adventures were able to inform the way I viewed the world and even how I tried to explain the world to someone close to me.

I wanted him to see himself as the hero of his own life, instead of a victim of tragedy. I know I didn’t change his mind in one sitting, but it could be one of those precious few memories that stick with him for years. Maybe—hopefully—as time goes on he will see himself become one of the heroes he has been reading about for years.


One thought on “Tragic Backstories — in Real Life and Fiction

  1. Pingback: How to Be a Hero | words — and other things

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