Finding the Perfect Tragic Past:
Giving a character a tragic past can be a fast and effective way to quickly dimensionalize a character. And the most common tragic past event is the death of a loved one. Somehow a relative, lover, or friend meets with an untimely demise. This loss invariably affects the story and how the character reacts to events in the story. Perhaps he or she feels guilty about the death or has vowed to track down and destroy the responsible bad guy. We've seen it a millions times and most of the time it works. It's worked for stories in the past and it will work for many more stories in the future. However, if you're looking for a tragic past that's a little different, perhaps a touch more fresh, there might be a couple of ways to do that. Let's take a somewhat morbid look at ways to create some fresh tragic events.
Usually, when we talk about a tragic past we're talking about a single event where the character loses something important to him or her. Either a bad guy or a perceived bad guy causes this event. And the character usually reacts with either guilty feelings or feelings of revenge. Perhaps it was an accident that this character blames himself for. Or perhaps it was a decision that your character regrets. Three basic components make up a tragic event. Let's see if there are ways to loosen up the cliches by taking a closer look at each.
Who or what was lost?
It doesn't necessarily have to be a relative, a lover, or a friend. It could be a complete stranger, or acquaintance. It could also be a thing: the family farm, a beloved sled, a car, a robot... something that was important to him or her. Or maybe it was more conceptual, like childhood innocence or the character's virginity. This is the area where creativity can really pay off. Brainstorm a list of things your character may have lost. Consider what's important in your life and what would happen if you lost it? Think back in your life when you really loved someone or something. How would your life be different now if you had lost that something? Now think about your character, what person or item has this character lost and how has that loss affected him?
How was the character involved?
How the character was involved is important and doesn't have to be limited to the most common one: he witnessed the tragedy. Your character may have directly caused the tragedy or simply thinks he or she caused the tragedy. Or maybe he or she heard it over a radio or telephone. Maybe it didn't really happen at all and he or she imagined it. Maybe he thinks he imagined it, but it really happened. Again, creativity in this area can really payoff in developing a creative tragic past.
How did this event affect the character?
This too is an area where a little creativity can make a common tragic past a little more interesting. Sure, the event could have caused feelings of guilt or wanting to get revenge. Or it could cause a flight/avoidance response where the character has completely blocked it out and denies that it happened. Or, if he or she was responsible in some way, it could cause a desire for redemption. Or perhaps being involved in this tragic event has caused him or her to turn evil - playing out the tragedy again and again.
A few minutes thinking of interesting ways to freshen up a tragic event will really make the character come alive and will create a character that audiences will love to learn more about.