Air of Mystery

While a character’s backstory can often provide the engine to a plot, how much backstory is too much? In “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” published in the New Yorker in 2022, Parul Sehgal discusses the prevalence of the “trauma plot,” which relies on a character’s past trauma to move the story forward. Citing examples such as Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015), Jason Mott’s novel Hell of a Book (Dutton, 2021), and the television series Ted Lasso, Sehgal argues that the trauma plot “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.” In contrast, Sehgal cites instances in which omitting backstory provides an effective air of mystery to a character, or what Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity.” Taking inspiration from this critique, write a story in which the backstory of your character is kept from the reader. What happens when you resist explanation for a character’s choices? What tools other than backstory can you use to create a dynamic character?