I’ve started my kids on Avatar: The Last Airbender this morning. My son, Simon, who will be seven this month, likes it; it may be a bit over the head of his three-year-old sister Irene. But what’s striking me on this viewing is that one thing it does organically that a lot of other shows don’t is create a real motivation and interesting backstory for its villains, to the extent that one of them gets a redemption arc over the course of the series. And the question becomes why it works on this show when nine times out of ten the very idea of introducing backstory makes me roll my eyes.
And the answer is, Avatar, and other shows that do it right, don’t treat it as a get-out-of-villainy-free card. Prince Zuko still has to atone for what he’s done wrong. Not only that, but we contrast his actions, and his emotions, with those of others how have experienced the same treatment and how they handle it. They aren’t all either good or bad; they’re people. And they’re either people who make mistakes or else people who believe what they’re doing is right, with one or two really genuinely bad people thrown in—and even they tend to believe what they’re doing is right. Because people do.
Too often, “tragic backstory” fiction is intended to rehabilitate the character completely and make us understand why they act the way they do. And too often, it seems intended to wash the blood from the characters’ hands. And it doesn’t wash that easily. Honestly, that seems to have been the point in The Dark Knight; whatever story the Joker was making up now, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t responsible for goodness only knows how many deaths. He was still a terrible person.
Sometimes, the character given that backstory isn’t even all that bad, and it feels as though it’s more intended to make the character interesting in a way they weren’t before. Perry Mason doesn’t need a tragic backstory; he is who he is, and that’s just the way things are. He doesn’t need a backstory to be more interesting, because it should be the stories that are interesting. He is interesting for what he does in them, not necessarily who he inherently is. And even if he’s interesting, you find your interest in who he is now and what he’s like, not in what they did to him before the story starts.
It’s frustrating. I feel as though a lot of people watched Avatar and The Dark Knight and saw their success and thought, “Ah, yes, people want a tragic backstory” without learning the lesson about what made that backstory good and interesting and worthwhile. It’s more than just come up with something terrible to have happened to someone. You have to think of why you’re doing it and what you hope it will bring to your story. And you have to remember that it won’t wash away the blood.