Klaes Ashford: The Perfect Backstory
As we wrap up our short series on The Expanse, we've been looking at how to do character backstories well, looking first at characters with good personal backstories, then examples of characters with plot-driven backstories. Today we're wrapping up the series by looking at an elegant, nuanced, fantastic arc that mixes both of these in perfect unison: Klaes Ashford.
Warning: I am an Ashford fanboy, so this post may not be entirely unbiased.
I. Ashford has a Good Backstory
From an overall perspective, Ashford has a good backstory. What did he do in the past for work? We know that (and thus why he is good at specific skills). Do we know where he was born, who his people are, and where his allegiances thus should lie? Yes and it motivates many of his actions in the story. Do we know what events forged him into the man he is in the present? Yes - and they impress us with the weight of his character even though they are presented in passing.
That is the sign of a good character backstory. The best events of his life appear in the story, not in the backstory, and yet the things in his backstory are excellent. And as the character continues to progress, better and better things are drawn out of his backstory to explain why he's acting the way he does in the moment.
We could leave it here and we'd have a good character. But we'll continue on the path to show why he's got the best backstory across all categories, moving next to politics and large-scale backstory elements.
II. Ashford and Belter Politics
Ashford has one distinguishing trait that none of the other characters in this lineup have: age. Ashford has been traveling across the system for decades, and this gives him several things the others don't have. First, he has notoriety: people know him and his ship. This means that when he enters a conflict, what he does matters on a far larger level than any of the other characters we've looked at because his name is known to every veteran spacer and politician.
And Ashford uses his notoriety accordingly. When Earther, Martian, and a Belter ship are all in near proximity, he waits until the right moment to make his broadcast to everyone, and he has the full attention of the sector at that moment. He serves as an obedient first mate for a time because his willingness to obey will inspire other Belters to follow suit. He even hunts down Belters that represent a threat to all worlds even though he knows it's unpopular, because he knows what kind of weight his support would give such men.
Ashford never takes on an overtly political role, but his actions tie him to the bigger plot that the narrator is telling. He plays his part, even though he's not a politician. And he plays it really well, driving the arc forward even though it's not his favorite thing to do.
III. Ashford and Ties that Bind
But Ashford isn't just a Belter pirate/privateer making waves in the intergalactic arena: he also has a family. His past routinely comes up and informs his actions, and it grounds him to specific places and people that he will not abandon. He covers the full range of emotions, at one moment being the stern and strategic commander that we know him to be, and the next we see a father who displays almost grandfatherly traits to others, speaking wisdom into them when they need it.
This is quality backstory right here: it's a deep, three-dimensional character who not only has a family background, but it also forms a strong tie to places and people that can inform his actions in the moment. It's a helpful tool for the narrator, as when new story elements arise, there's the question about how it will affect Klaes Ashford.
And we're still not done yet - one more thing.
IV. Ashford and PC Connections
Ashford has ties to the rest of the main cast. For some he's just a very level-headed Belter who makes good decisions and has some of the best guns in the belt. For some he's a mentor, a patriot, and an inspiration. For others he's just another Joe making it in a harsh universe, and you'll live longer if you don't cross him.
Whatever their connection may be, Ashford has no problems building and growing his connections with the "player characters" of the story. But more than that, he is an initiator of player character connections. He doesn't wait for someone else to open up - he even brings up to Drummer his theory on why he can't mutiny against her. He is more than just a character who is roleplayed well: he brings others out of their shells and helps them to open up and bring things to the table that will add weight to the scene.
And that's what a good character should look like. The character is deep, engaging, consistent, themed for the campaign, and makes the other characters better because they were around him/her. So if you're looking for a model for your character, look at Klaes Ashford. It's a good template.
Until next time,