I saw the movie Drive this weekend, starring Ryan Gosling and some other people I didn't pay attention to (fine, it had a good cast, but come on. RYAN. F-ING. GOSLING. Pretty sure that's his middle name). It was a very different film from what I expected given the trailer, which made me think of the concepts of storytelling and backstory. As in, how much do you know/need to know about your characters and story, and how much do you reveal in the story itself?
I read a review of the movie after having seen it and the review pointed out one major point that I completely missed while watching the film: Ryan Gosling's character has no name. Even in the credits, they simply refer to him as "Driver." This one caught me off guard, because I've had this very conversation in many of my crit groups, and I've heard it from more than one source - you need to have character names. It's how readers identify a character, and if they can't name a character - even the narrator - they get antsy about it after a while. I know I do. But in the film, I never even noticed that his character was never named. How could they get away with such a thing under my trained nose?
Because I had a face. Ryan Gosling's face. I didn't need to know his name because his face was what identified him on the big screen. For me, it was the equivalent of giving me a name, because it was an instantly recognizable feature of that character. You can get away with it on screen, since it's a visual aspect, but giving a character description every time in lieu of a name doesn't really work. So for movies, we have faces. For books, we have names.
The second thing I noticed (which I actually did notice) was a complete absence of backstory. Gosling's character has a very specific side job (no spoilers, I promise) that is an offshoot of his day job but certainly not in the same legal category. He's a young guy with an old world feel, and being the writer-type I am, my first question was "How did he come to this line of work?" It's not something people fall into, and the backstory would have helped tremendously in my efforts to believe the character and what he knew. But we're never given a hint of backstory.
This movie is actually based on a book, so I'm curious if the book goes into his past in more detail. I would hope it does, because it drove me crazy throughout the movie. I kept expecting the explanation to trickle out along the way, to give us more depth to the character and build the anticipation of what he would do. But we never even got acknowledgement from any of the other characters that this might be a question to ask. No one, anywhere along the way, ever asked him "Where did you learn how to do that?" It left me feeling unsatisfied at the end of the film.
I would argue that this isn't something you can get away with in a book. You certainly HAVE TO KNOW your character's backstory - and not just the main character, either. Even if we never hear it, even if we never get to know all the nitty gritty details, you as the writer need to know it in order to fully realize your characters. It can be annoying and tiresome to think through it on that level, but it's essential. And for me personally, as a reader I like to know the backstory, especially if it's relevant to the details of the story you're telling. I don't need to know everything, but I like to see it sprinkled in here and there to give me context for the character I'm following. It's not an area often visited by movies - frankly they don't have the time - but it's necessary in any good story.
Have you seen any movies lately that have highlighted some conventions of storytelling specific to the written word? Have you read any books lately that felt like movies and left you wanting more?