A Protagonist with no Backstory

A Protagonist with no BackstoryCan you defy convention and write a protagonist with no backstory? I started a new project to explore just that.

Recently Daniel David Wallace asserted that ‘novels are obsessed with the past.’ Writing coaches the world over declare that we need fully rounded characters with detailed backstories. Freudian psychology insists the key to present behaviour is understanding our past experiences. We are all products of our past, shaped by everything that has gone before. So authors slavishly do that.

Daniel backed his statement with examples of novels that insert vast amounts of the past through exposition, interiority and flashbacks. Oh, the flashbacks! And what’s wrong with them?

In his view, too few stories live in the moment.

Going, going, gone

This obsession with the past drags us out of the present. It takes us away from what is happening now to events that happened long ago. Events that are done. Gone.

Yes, the past can be fascinating; the detail, the layers, the drama, the trauma. Novels are also obsessed with trauma. Give the protagonist a traumatic backstory to elicit sympathy, make them relatable. So many genres rely on it; adventure, thriller, romance, crime. How many fictional detectives have layer upon layer of trauma in their tragic backstory? It’s beyond a trope, it’s cliché.

Then what should we, as readers care about? The story that is happening now.

Be mindful; live in the present moment. ‘Give me the grace to accept what I cannot change.’

How admirable is that? How Zen, how stoic, how [insert newest or oldest philosophy of choice here]?

Daniel’s argument? Backstory in exposition and flashback take us away from the present where the story supposedly lives. Where the protagonist has to protag (verb copyright Brandon Sanderson, c.2016). Where they must transform through their character arc page by page; always moving forward.

Taking it to heart

I took Daniel’s assertion to heart. My fantasy series is fully laden with traumatic backstories. Perhaps overloaded. My November project is steeped in traumatic backstory. Internalising the flashbacks makes it all less cumbersome, but it’s not subtle.

I got to thinking, can I ditch all of it? Can I write a protagonist with no backstory? How is that even possible? I landed on one specific trope: the amnesia plot.

I had in mind a creaky old amnesia plot from the 1970’s. It seemed a perfect proving ground for ditching the past.

The protagonist enters on page one with no memory, no name, no identity. Accused of a crime, she has no idea of her innocence or guilt.

Yes, this has been done before. All plots have been done before. Just think The Bourne Identity.

I’ve reframed an old amnesia plot in my fantasy setting, so it doesn’t have to be medically accurate (few amnesia plots are).

The standard thriller/suspense amnesia plot focuses on the character getting their memories back. But that just throws us back into an obsession with the past.

The Antidote to Amnesia Plots

Can I ditch the usual formula? What if the protagonist doesn’t get their memory back?

What if the plot is about the innocence or guilt? The conspiracy in the now? No flashbacks, no exposition about past trauma? A protagonist freed from their past? Is that possible?

The first outline says… maybe.

My protagonist has no identity but the one described by other people. An identity of a person who didn’t exist two weeks ago, with no survivors who knew her to confirm or deny it.

And there’s an ongoing conspiracy. Our mystery woman has a secret that others want. But she can’t remember that either.

It’s a classic adventure trope. Then I add some fantasy ingredients from my established setting. Another book I don’t have time to write.

The Bored Identity

While outlining this new project, BookFox on BookTube released a video Seven Story Structures that are Overused. Guess what is his bonus number eight? ‘Amnesia again.’

Gah, what does he know?

Let’s live in the moment.

11 thoughts on “A Protagonist with no Backstory”

  1. Nikki Delorem

    Real retrograde amnesia seriously impairs your ability to function and quality of life. Medically none of these amnesia plots make sense.

  2. Tasham O'Connor

    Problem with Amnesia plot is the logic of the story. If the audience doesn’t buy the explanation for why the main character has amnesia, it will absolutely pull them out of the story.

  3. The MC character learns they’re the child of the antagonist or were a very bad person in the past. In the last three pages. Drum, hi-hat. Thank you and good night.

  4. Lamar Holbrook

    I absolutely hate amnesia, it probably my least favorite device – no – gimmick. That’s what it is.

  5. Characters suddenly remembering things when it’s convenient for the plot. That’s not proper amnesia.

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