The first two or three minutes of season one, episode one of TNT’s Leverage introduces us to an alcoholic who used to be an investigator for a massive company that insures art. Used to, because as soon as his son took ill they refused to cover a treatment that could have cured him. Now he is childless, divorced, unemployed, and utterly without direction. His name is Nate Ford, and his case is infamous.
After taking up an offer from someone who claims to have been robbed by a rival company, he is grouped with three thieves he has chased in the past. We know their names and specialties and the fact that they all have distinct personalities. That’s about it.
Okay, to be fair, we know Parker (no other name given) stole a stuffed rabbit and blew up a house when she was a kid. We know Alec Hardison once hired a bunch of girls to dress up in gold bikinis a la Princess Leia and fight with light sabers (GEEK PRIDE!). Eliot Spencer’s flashback reveals that he retrieved a baseball card by beating up a host of guys with guns and didn’t even spill his coffee. Later on, when we meet future team mom Sophie Devereaux, it’s revealed that she and Nate have a long history together. Since this initial introduction, we have learned very little else about any of these characters’ pasts. But exactly how much does that detract from the experience?
The fact is that we’re dealing with amazing characters and a cast with absolutely incredible chemistry, but what part does their past play in all that? The writers of the show try quite consciously to leave most of their backgrounds as blank slates, but are they really doing themselves any favors that way? It would probably be more problematic if they weren’t revealing the characters’ hidden depths in such a way as to keep background information secret. It’s an interesting take on character, and one most authors wouldn’t dream of. After all, what is a more ripe and easy source of depth and angst than a dark, secretive background that’s revealed almost first thing? The fact that the writers of Leverage are able to create such fascinating characters without falling back on background alone is very telling, and other writers and shows could learn from this example. After all, in the end, the show is about the characters as they are, not as they used to be. So why are fans crying for more background information? Well, there are two reasons.
First of all, the audience expects to have background information on the characters they love. It’s not a sense of entitlement that causes this so much as out-and-out curiosity and love for the character. We want to meet Nate’s father not because it's convention, but because we love Nate and want to know as much about him as possible. We like hearing that Hardison was a foster kid and Eliot used to be claustrophobic. We take joy in the information and devour the tidbits each episode throws at us. If you’re dating someone you’re really interested in, you want to see their baby pictures and hear their parents talk about them. It works the same way with characters.
Second of all, we want character background because, frankly, it’s essential to the character. It’s not that a character’s history is useless when it exists only in the mind of the author, but the audience needs to be able to place the current story in the context of the character’s life. For example, Parker, who has one of the most fleshed-out backgrounds on the show, has a clear motive for staying with the group. We understand, because we have the context of her history, why these people are so important to her and that this is very much a unique life experience for her.
However, the amount of background we know has little to do with this. Technically, we have “enough” background on Sophie simply because we do understand the events of the series in the context of her life. All the same, we have very, very little information about her history. Contrast Eliot, who we have even less on, and whose motives remain a mystery even though we see many, many facets to him. As a result, he may be the character hardest to relate to on the grounds that we don’t have the context with him that we have with the others. Does that make it meaningless when we see him compassionate, angry, or annoyed? Absolutely not. It’s still character depth, it’s just out of context.
Nonetheless, character background is not the only thing that makes a good character, as Leverage shows very well. What relevance does Parker's past have when she and Eliot are acting like little kids together? Do we have to know who Sophie's parents were in order to relate to her identity crisis? Do we need to know, this moment, what landed Hardison and Parker in foster homes when they were kids? Not really. What’s important is that they have that common experience, even if they were different experiences, and can connect to each other on a deeper level than before. When Eliot chooses to champion a young victim of child abuse, does his motivation come from his past or from his own capacity for compassion? The important thing is that he is compassionate, and that this is a tender side of him we’ve never really seen before. I actually prefer to think he, like most people, finds child abuse reprehensible without having to dig up some dirt from his past. It speaks more to the type of person he is that he finds it horrible without having to be shown firsthand.
The fact of life is that who you are right now is not who you were years ago. Authors who fall into the trap of defining a character strictly by their past should keep this in mind. People change, grow, slide down the slippery slope, and change even more. Their past is past, the road that got them to where they are, the road that has branched out and will continue to branch out into other roads, a network of choices and experiences. Leverage makes the important statement that a character, and indeed a person, is not limited to what they have previously experienced. Our stories are still being told, and so are theirs.