In every story, someone is haunted by the past. Often times it’s the hero, such as Rick in “Casablanca” who’s bitter over a broken love affair that we gradually learn about over the course of the story. Other times the character with the haunted past is the mentor, such as the handyman/karate instructor in “The Karate Kid,” who has a tragic past that still hurts him to this day.
A haunted past is necessary for two reasons. First, it gives a character an emotional goal that he or she will eventually have to face and overcome. Second, a haunted past makes a character seem vulnerable and thus more sympathetic.
In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan’s past with Darth Vader forces him to confront Darth Vader on the Death Star in the end. In “Casablanca,” Rick has to overcome his bitterness of the past to decide what he should do with the letters of transit that can get two people out of Nazi-controlled territory.
Should Rick keep the letters for himself and let the Nazis capture and likely torture and kill a man? Or should Rick give the man the letters so he can escape the Nazis and continue fighting against them?
All good stories pose a dilemma and that dilemma often comes from the haunted past of that character. When a character has a past, he or she feels more real and has a motivation for their actions that may seem mysterious to us.
In “Thelma and Louise,” Louise refuses to drive through Texas and only later do we learn that she was raped there. In “Casablanca,” we have know idea why Rick is so bitter until we learn what happened but also who his lover was at the time. Once we understand Rick’s past, we can better understand the dilemma he’s facing.
A character’s haunted past simply enhances the present decisions of a character. In “Casablanca,” there’s little reason for Rick (or us) to care one way or another whether if keeps the letters of transit or gives them to someone else. However, once we know Rick’s haunted past, we can see that his past greatly raises the stakes on his decision in the present. Now it’s not a matter of keeping the letters or giving them away, but whether he’ll claim his old lover (and let her husband die) or give the letters away and see his lover leave with another man.
A haunted past makes the present more emotionally intense and meaningful. Just watching Obi-wan fighting Darth Vader is interesting, but when you add in Obi-wan’s haunted past, now you have an added emotional element that enhances the physical action. By itself, physical action is relatively boring. Watch two strangers argue and it’s mildly interesting. Now if you see your parents arguing, that’s far more interesting because you are emotionally invested in seeing one or the other win or lose.
Either your hero or mentor needs a haunted past. In “The Karate Kid” remake, the mentor has the haunted past because he got into a car accident that killed his wife, and the guilt he feels over his actions have kept him down. In “Star Wars,” the mentor (Obi-wan) also has a haunted past that motivates him.
In “Thelma and Louise,” Louise has a haunted past because of being raped in Texas. In “Snowpiercer,” the hero also has a haunted past because he killed the mother of his friend. The haunted past of both the hero and mentor makes that character’s actions far more interesting when we understand the significance of their actions in hindsight.
A haunted past gives your characters a sense of reality and empathy. When you understand a character’s haunted past, you can more closely identify with that character. Make sure your story includes a haunted past for your hero or mentor. Without a haunted past, your hero or mentor will just look like puppets in a story, but with a haunted past, your characters suddenly feel more like a real person we can root for and support.