I have a character with a grim past (forced to watch torture). I need him to have that grim past in order to explain his behaviour in the story I am writing now: characters who did not know his past are taken by surprise by how nasty he is willing to be if it will help bring down the regime that did the torture.

The trouble is that I'm beginning to feel the whole current story, which isn't nearly so grim or black-and-white as the backstory, looks trivial in comparison. I fear that anyone reading it is going to diagnose a case of what TV Tropes calls "They Wasted A Perfectly Good Plot"

I have zero desire to ever write the grim stuff as a separate story. It's too depressing and also too monotonous.

Nor do I want to simply delete his backstory, or scale it back drastically. It would mess up my whole picture of what he's like. The way that the backstory is overwhelming the main story isn't really a matter of how many words are devoted to each; it's more a matter of how much more emotionally charged the earlier events are in comparison to the events of the main plot.

Any advice on how I can square the circle?

  • @mwo, Dale Emery, Hurkyl, practically every sentence in the three replies received so far gave me something. Incredible hit rate. Thank you. I tried to keep my question general so as to be useful to others, but will mention some things specific to my story in this comment. (1) Despite his past, this character comes across as normal, and is, most of the time.But your answers remind me that peril can be moral as well as physical. (2) The good guys in my story have some right to be so described. Hence their surprise when one of their own lets the side down. The surprise is a plot point. May 18, 2015 at 10:09

4 Answers 4


Increase the emotional charge of the main plot. Some possibilities:

  • Increase the intensity of the main story. Make the conflict more conflicty. For example: Maybe some of his allies, horrified at having witnessed what he is capable of, begin to see him as just as evil as the regime they are struggling to destroy. Maybe some of them abandon him, or even turn against him.

  • Raise the stakes of the main story. Maybe the evil regime becomes even more evil, or stronger, or more widespread. Maybe formerly good people begin to accept the evil, or even participate. Maybe the stakes become more personal for the hero, as the evil regime specifically targets the hero's loved ones.

  • Increase the difficulty of the main story. Introduce obstacles, especially obstacles designed specifically to trouble the hero. (Maybe he has to torture a former ally.) Remove the resources and support that the hero was most counting on, especially the support of his most important allies and loved ones. Bring the hero to the point of despair.


Without knowing your plot its hard to say, but I think you might have already mentioned the word at the heart of a possible solution. Circle.

Don't just have his past haunt him, and explain his actions. Make him confront it again in the main plot. Bring him full circle. What you currently think is your main plot, is just the excuse to see him in action. Turn a sudden corner and we find that somebody is making history repeat. Your hero has to get neck deep into his past and his problems in order to resolve them.

This guarantees equal grim-factor for the start and end, the middle ought to work itself out after that. If you can't stomach that, then maybe you really ought to lose the backstory and redefine your hero. It sounds like you want to make him a monster but if that's the case he must visit some very dark places in the final chapters otherwise what was the point?


Try to look at it dispassionately; it sounds like maybe the problem is just that it's had enough of an emotional impact on you that you feel like you need to give it the treatment it deserves, rather than paring it back to what is appropriate for your story.

What does the audience really need to know about the character? You could write as little as

Grim storms off, irritated with the others' soft attitudes

Person 1: What's his problem?

Person 2: Don't mind him. The villains tortured him as a kid; he's been looking for a chance for payback ever since, by any means possible.

... much later ...

Grim spots main villain

Grim: You! You're the one behind the torture

Climatic confrontation

Enough stories get by with little more than this, and so could yours, if it really needed to. It's enough to know he has a dark past; the audience isn't required to truly understand the dark past.

Surely, though, you can find ways to work in some more details here and there that won't darken your current story, or drop hints for people looking for it, and maybe imply the darker stuff for people to figure out if they really think about it.


There could be a simple answer to "rebalancing" the roles of the backstory and main story.

That is, pull part of your backstory into your main story, and leaving only a "remainder" as "backstory."

If some facts of your backstory are so compelling, maybe they don't begin there.

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