Vader v. Anakin: Dawn of Backstory

What makes a character work and what doesn’t isn’t always easy to define, but I will say that backstory is probably the least important aspect of nearly any character. We love digging into a character’s past, to find what makes them tick and drives them. And many a great character has gained something from having an interesting backstory.


I’d put forth, in that typical A. Lee Martinez contrarian way, that by focusing on backstory, we lose much of what makes a character interesting and memorable. I have a tendency to not do much backstory for my characters, and even my protagonists and villains tend not to have much elaboration on their past. For some readers, that’s confirmation that my stories and characters are shallow, and it’s all subjective, so I’m not going to argue. I might not agree, but I can see where that comes from.

Yet I feel like my point holds up well under actual analysis. What makes characters interesting isn’t where they came from, but who they are in the story. Darth Vader strode onto the screen and was immediately an icon. Learning more about his backstory, beyond the broadest strokes, didn’t make him more interesting. People might blame the clumsy writing on the prequels (and they are very clumsy), but few acknowledge that there was practically no way to tell of the fall of Anakin Skywalker in an interesting way. What makes Darth Vader so effective as a character isn’t his past. It’s his presence, his voice, his powers and his methods. What makes Anakin boring (beyond the obvious flaws in the prequels) is that he’s just another Jedi among Jedi. Nothing about him is particularly distinct. Not his clothes, nor his tools, nor his abilities. The only distinct element of Anakin is his emotional instability, and that’s one of the things most people find annoying (and perhaps even accidentally comical) about him.

An even more straightforward example is Boba Fett the bounty hunter, who in the original films doesn’t do much beyond a little tracking. But damn it, the guy has a cool outfit and carries himself like a badass. His first impression is so powerful that when he dies in a Three Stooges like moment, fans demanded that the extended universe fix that. And maybe the extended universe created the myth of Boba Fett, but the movies portray him as a smart-ish guy who is killed by his own jetpack.

But, jeepers, that jetpack is neat.

When we study how to make great characters, we spend a heck of a lot of time learning about motivations and backstory and all that nonsense, when, really, all you need is a good helmet and a great entrance. Star Wars is full of great characters, and all of them in the original trilogy are so simple you could sketch their traits on a cocktail napkin. It’s contrary to what we expect, but Han Solo is defined by his smile, his blaster, and his black vest. Luke might be among the most complicated of characters in the original trilogy (which isn’t saying much), but his characterization can be summarized by a desire to help people and a cool lightsaber.

It’s strange to say that a tool can define a character so thoroughly, but that’s exactly what it does. It’s why when there are more Jedi, they all suffer. The more characters running around with lightsabers, using the Force, the less interesting they all become. It doesn’t matter if you try to elaborate on them. The thing that defines them at a glance is inherently less interesting.

Rambo uses a bow. The story justification is that it’s a silent weapon. The character justification is that bows are cool and distinct and make him stand out against his enemies. See also: Hawkeye, a character who has been a staple in the comic books for decades. He’s a tactician, leader, and carries a bow and arrow because just shooting people would be boring. Ultimate Hawkeye started doing that and lost anything memorable about himself in the process.

Captain America uses a shield. Batman throws batarangs. The Falcon flies. Thor has his hammer. These tools define the characters on a fundamental level. They define how they approach problems, and what make them distinct from each other. Sure, they all have different backstories, and those backstories matter. But those backstories don’t come up every minute. Cap’s shieldslinging is far more of a constant than many other parts of his character. So much so that in Civil War when he gives it up, it highlights the rift between Cap and Iron Man more than just about anything else they could do.

The best example of methodology, tools, and costumes defining great characters is found in Overwatch. While the characters in the game all have backstories, they are all irrelevant to the game itself. In the end, what makes these characters memorable is everything you get by looking at them and playing them. In this regard, Overwatch is a master class in how to give characters . . . well . . . character through visual language and gameplay alone.

Winston is a gorilla with glasses in power armor. He is rarely shown scowling or angry. His default expression is curiosity. And his gameplay is all about an up close and personal confrontation. Winston doesn’t hang back, and everything about him informs the characters of this style. From his lightning cannon to his jump jets to his forcefield, this is a character meant to be in the thick of the action. And when his ultimate powers up, the reminder that he is, in fact, a gorilla in power armor, is pushed to the forefront.

Tracer flashes around the battlefield. She’s deliberately under-armored and armed with a pair of light pistols. These choices are there to have her fulfill a specific role on the team, but they also define who she is as a character. Even without knowing her backstory, it’s not hard to figure that Tracer is impulsive and slippery and fun-loving.

Reaper, draped in black with his skull mask and duel shotguns, is exactly the opposite. Among my favorite bit of characterizations is the way he reloads, throwing his guns aside and pulling two more from his coat. It is absurd, but it highlights his indifference, even to the tools he uses.

Every character is helped too by terrific voice direction. Every character has their own distinct way of speaking. Whether it’s Mei’s apologetic glee or Pharah’s military precision, you needn’t read a single page of backstory to get a sense of these characters and who they are.

Am I saying that a cool costume is more important than an elaborate backstory?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

What the heck did Captain Phasma ever do that was interesting beyond having silver armor? (And don’t give me extended universe explanations. If I have to research a character to find them memorable, then you haven’t done your job.)

Most great characters, when you think about it, have very simple backstories. Batman’s parents were killed by criminals, and so he trained himself to fight crime. (Also, Batarangs and a cool car.) Superman is a strange visitor from another world who is here to fight for truth and justice. (Also, flies and can punch out meteorites.) Tarzan was raised by apes, with all the savage instincts and physical ability that comes from that. (Also, usually half-naked and a noble.) Wonder Woman is an Amazon warrior who fights for peace. (Also, bullet-deflecting bracers and a magic lasso.) Indiana Jones is an adventurer who explores hidden temples and fights Nazis. (Also, cool hat, whip.)

Granted, these are all adventure characters, whose ability to beat up villains is at least part of what defines them. A lot of these rules probably don’t apply to stories about regular people living regular lives. If we’re talking about Bob the accountant, he’s unlikely to have a magic power that defines him. In such stories as that, backstories might matter a little more, but I’d still argue that I want to know who the character is now, not who they once were. Knowing where a character comes from can be vital to many stories, but not quite as vital as we’ve been led to believe. That’s all I’m daring to suggest. There are plenty of exceptions, but even then, a great backstory doesn’t make a boring character much more interesting.

Putting everything aside, interesting characters are interesting because of what they’re doing in the moment, not what they once did or what they might do. Even in quieter stories, it’s important to remember that we like spending time with characters who engage us, usually through their actions in some way or another. And most writers I know, especially when they start out, are so busy creating cool backstories for their characters that they never ask if they’ve made someone who is interesting to hang out with.

Give me Darth Vader over Anakin every time.

And even Bob the accountant should be doing something engaging, even if he isn’t carrying a lightsaber on his hip.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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