Every story has a history. Your hero has a past that directly influences the present. Your mentor has a past that directly influences how he or she influences the hero. Your villain has a past that directly influences his or her goals that directly conflict with the hero. If you ignore the past, your story will lack a huge chunk of information necessary to make your story work.
Everyone in your story is trying to solve a problem that occurred in the past. In “Casablanca,” the huge problem is that the hero had a love affair with a woman who mysteriously broke up with him just as she was about to leave with him. Now heartbroken, the hero has become bitter and jaded. The hero’s past is now what the hero must change in the present to become a better person.
In a more recent movie, “Liar, Liar” is about a man who consistently lies. His lying is the cause for his divorce and being a poor father to his son. Now the hero has to overcome this problem with his past to change and become a better person.
The past doesn’t have to extend too far back in time. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero is suddenly uprooted from his home and plopped into a strange world. In this case, we get to experience the hero’s confusion, fear, and frustration as he tries to learn how to cope with his new environment. Then he runs into the villain and problems occur.
In most cases, the hero has a distant past that’s finally caught up to him or her. In “Nebraska,” an old man believes he’s won a contest that will make him a millionaire. To humor him, his son agrees to drive him to the contest headquarters to verify if he won a million dollars or not. Here the problem is that the father and son have a bitter past that will gradually heal through their adventure getting to the contest headquarters to verify if he won or not.
When you think of problems for your hero, think first of what could have occurred in the past that the hero needs to finally resolve. In “Thelma and Louise,” the two women must finally deal with their past lives where they allowed men to run their world. By identifying what major problem occurred in the past, you’ll automatically know how your hero needs to change during the course of your story.
What makes “Gravity” and “Edge of Tomorrow” visually interesting but emotionally empty stories is that there’s no hint of a problem from the past. In “Gravity,” the hero is a rookie astronaut who must survive disaster and get back to Earth. All of her challenges are physical. We really don’t get to know anything about her past so there’s no way for her to change emotionally, which creates a far more satisfying story.
Likewise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” the hero is a military officer who becomes a better person by fighting the aliens over and over again in the same battle. While this hero does become a better person in the end, there’s not much of a problem from the past driving him to change in the present.
Sometimes a story doesn’t need a problem from the past to drive the hero to action, but it can definitely help. When creating your own story, think about how a problem from the past could have hurt your hero. Now use that past emotional pain to force your hero to confront that issue in the present. Chances are good if your hero doesn’t have a major problem from the past to overcome, your hero’s mentor does (think “The Karate Kid”) so use the past as a way to correct problems in the present.
The past is a crucial element of any story. First it creates a mystery that we have to unravel gradually over time. Second it defines how the hero (or mentor) needs to change in the story. Without a past, you probably don’t even have a story at all.