Not everything needs to be defined in a story. There should always be an air of mystery or some unknown element. Backstories, character origins, different motivations, not all of these need to be explained. While I could easily use the example of the Star Wars prequels, I’d rather talk about Hannibal Lector.
Lector is a psychiatrist, FBI profiler, and cannibalistic serial killer. We’re introduced to the character in the 1981 novel Red Dragon, . The character continues in the Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal books. It should have ended there (with the novels and film adaptations). Instead, in 2006, a prequel novel titled Hannibal Rising was released, the film a year later. Both versions received negative critical receptions. Why? That’s an easy answer.
There are generally three types of villains, ones that think they’re the hero (Lex Luthor), ones that are forced/choose to do evil for a greater good (Itachi Uchiha, Dr. Freeze), or traumatized victims. The first two are easy to explain. While introducing the character, their backstory is integral to current motivations instantly making them sympathetic. It’s a sad fact that people in this world exist who do horrible things, and worse off, we’ll never know why. The only link we’ve come up with is some past trauma that damaged their psyche. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Some people are just broken. Hannibal Lector is one such person/character. There is no good reason to explain why he eats people. Like a force of nature, he exists. As to why, it will never be known, nor does it need to be. Not understanding why makes him scarier, which was the purpose of his creation. Using abuse, neglect, and tragedy as a catalyst doesn’t work every time.
On the flip side you have characters like Wolverine, sorry, I meant James Howlett. Most of Wolverine’s back story has been known from the beginning. Marvel’s most popular character woke up in a Canadian lab after being experimented on. Codenamed Weapon X, he only had dog tags with the name Wolverine etched on them. That was all he ever knew about his past. This fueled the character for over 25 years. The readers never knew what came before Weapon X other than he was in the military. It wasn’t needed. In Wolverine: Origins we learn he was a rich kid, named James Howlett born the late 1880’s . It also explains why he likes redheads. To me, this mystery was a defining characteristic of Wolverine, and the fleshed out origin (which was bound to come sooner or later) is superfluous.
How many monster movies have you seen where the monster reveal doesn’t live up to expectation? For me, almost constantly. Human imagination personified can only go so far. The fears in your mind are far greater than any creature someone can create. While there are countless examples of where showing the monster doesn’t work, lets look at one instance where remaining unknown does work; The Strangers. The movie is about a couple terrorized by mask wearing murderous home invaders. You watch as this couple is psychologically tortured for 90 minutes. The antagonist’s faces are never seen, they don’t speak, and they certainly aren’t given any motivation, and they never need to be. Explaining any one of those things breaks the experience. Humans fear the unknown more than anything else.
What stories do you like that left gaps for your imagination? What one’s were ruined with too much information (except Star Wars, it’s been a decade already, get over it)? Comment below, on Facebook, or tweet! If you enjoyed this post, please share!
“Some strings are better left undone”