Cookiemonger and I were discussing characters this morning, with a focus on those with “tragic pasts.” Fruits Basket came up, since she’s currently reading the manga, and it occurred to me one of the problems I have with “tragic pasts.” In Fruits Basket, nearly every single character has a tragic past. They’re handed out like candy at Halloween. The cast is a herd of woobies.

Now, stepping aside from Fruits Basket for a moment, my issue with tragic backstories is that they tend to be the focal point for an otherwise static character. Their backstory might as well be a weird hairstyle or a trademark stance, gesture, or catchphrase. While it might be a feature of the character, it stops there. In real life, tragedy tends to follow tragedy. Anything bad will tend to get worse. And then they die.

This seems to be less common in fiction, where having a tragic backstory is basically the only time the character experiences anything profoundly, earth-shatteringly bad, and after that, primarily due to poor writing, they will enter a form of stasis where they will continue to justify their actions (whatever they may be) based on one bad point in their life that continues to fade in the distance of years.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with giving a character a tragic history. The problems stem from relying on that character’s tragic background for personality without introducing anything new of changing the character over time. Unless of course, that’s the point of the story. But it still has to be written well. I prefer to see characters that learn through their failures, and grow over time. But that’s me.