The Tragic Backstory – When is it too much?


The other night hubby and I were debating over Doctor Who’s tragic backstory.  Hubby believes that having the Doctor be the last of a murdered species is over the top and unnecessary.  Having there be a possibility that there might be other Time Lords out there is a much more interesting prospect and would give the Doctor more dimension.

I believe, however, that his backstory is fine as it is.  Having the Doctor be the last of his species is poignant and makes everything he does more noble.  There is nothing compelling him to continue governing time and that he still continues to do so adds a lot of unseen strength to his character. If there were the possibility of there being other Time Lords it would reason that many of the episodes would revolve around him trying to find them instead of embarking on new adventures.

Daleks_2005_and_2010Our debate raised another question that hopefully one of you can answer.  It’s clear that the Doctor can reincarnate when he dies, seeing as he already has done so on numerous occasions.  Why didn’t the other Time Lords reincarnate?  It stands to reason that because of this unique ability there very well may be other Time Lords out there simply because they just keep coming back.  My best guess as to why this isn’t so is that the Daleks kill in such a way that it prevents the reincarnation process, but I could be totally wrong.  I’m still only in series one and there might be a better explanation when Doctor 9 becomes Doctor 10 at the end of the season.

Back to Tragic backstory.   Many of our favorite characters have tragic backstories.  Harry Potter’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a baby and he was raised by the horrible Dursleys.  Luke Skywalker’s mother died in childbirth and his uncle and aunt were slaughtered by the Imperial forces.  In Wreck It Ralph they hang a red flag on Sergeant Calhoun’s tragic wedding where her fiancee is eaten in front of her because she didn’t perform a perimeter check.  In almost all Disney movies the main character’s mother is dead, think about it, the only one I can find where the family hasn’t already been ripped apart is The Incredibles.

Most tragic backstories start with the main characters family enduring a crises where some of them die.  Usually it is a parent but the death of a sibling can also be very scarring. Then, depending on the needs of the story, there are a series of other events that add to the depth of the character which include but aren’t limited to: slavery, abusive relationships, physical disability, mental illness, crime, confusing magic powers,  imprisonment, and more death.

When is it too much? Each story has a tone, some are serious and somber; some are lighthearted and funny.  Serious stories lend themselves to a more tragic backstories where a lighthearted story would be weighed down by more than a few unfortunate events.

And the truth is none of it matters.  I’ve seen characters with minor tragic events turn them into these massive stumbling blocks all because the reader is exposed to the characters huge internal turmoil.  Everything that the character must overcome is measured against this one painful event.

Then there are characters who walk on the page with so much baggage that it seems impossible for them to bear it. Their families have been murdered, their home burned, everything has gone wrong for them, but regardless of everything that has happened to them they are still grimly working towards their goals.  They’ve buried their pasts so they can survive the present.

Now, writer be warned.  There is such thing as making a character so tragic that they actually become funny.  If this is your goal go for it.  Otherwise, keep the tragic events to exactly what’s needed to make your character realistic and interesting.

It all comes down to the personality of the character.  There is no requirement for any character to have a tragic backstory, but history shows that readers empathize with characters who have struggled and still struggle with their past.  If anything, it makes them more relatable to real people.  No one likes a character who has had it too easy in their life.

So, there it is.  Doctor Who has a tragic past because it makes him more interesting, more personable, and more noble.  Whether his past is considered too tragic is up to the viewer.

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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12 Responses to The Tragic Backstory – When is it too much?

  1. quiall says:

    I have been watching Doctor Who since the 80s (The original series) and I wouldn’t change a thing.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    It seems like drama requires its characters be rooted in tragedy and comedy requires them to be rooted in banality. No always, but the humor usually stems from an ordinary person thrust into outrageous circumstances.

    As for Doctor Who ( as if I could not comment), he can’t regenerate if he’s killed outright. He’s superhuman in the sense that he can endure injuries that would kill an earthling, but he must regenerate before it’s too late. Also, not everyone from Gallifrey was a Time lord with regeneration capability.

    Without spoilers, there’s a lot more to his story yet to be revealed in the subsequent series (I assume you finished series 1?)

    • Jodi says:

      An astute observation (and wonderfully more concise than mine, bravo)

      I knew you would pull through for me about the reincarnation thing and that there was more to it! Thanks for being my on call DW wiki, that’s super handy.

      I’m getting super close to finishing series one, only a few left. I want to go faster but I also want to watch with the hubby and those two things conflict. It might take months but I will get caught up!

  3. Level Whimsicality says:

    You are right, the tragic backstory cannot go on forever. As ericjbaker alludes to above, you need to watch the past 10 years of the show.

  4. damynx says:

    I think they are going to distance themselves from the tragic back story with the new regenerations. It’s like rebooting the reboot. When you say the First season, you’re not talking the first Doctor but Doctor 10? A lot of the originals didn’t make it out of the dark ages of black and white.

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