The type of character background you’re given in a story depends on the story being told. In Lost each character has their own past which is seen in glimpses over the course of six seasons, but it takes much longer to learn the full story for a few while others can be told in one or two episodes. Also, some characters have their backstory presented early on while others remain a mystery for a better part of the season or series.
Sometimes the technique works because there are characters who are defined by where they come from and the audience needs to see this before they can move forward and feel attached to them. While this method doesn’t ruin a story, I think it does have the potential to weaken it.
Then we have characters like Ben Linus who’s backstory takes time to get to which works perfectly for him. Mainly because we’re first made to believe he’s a different person, but also because Ben is a character defined by what is currently happening on screen. All the audience and the other characters need to know is what’s given by the way he acts and the small details presented of his past. A lavish backstory isn’t necessary with Ben just yet.
When his backstory is given, it feels earned and comes at a point when he’s going through some major character development. It flows more smoothly to have this reflection on where he started even before he was introduced. Even if Ben’s story was never given, the audience still has a clear idea of who he is and where he’s coming from based on dialogue, facial cues, and basic actions or reactions. His development is all done within the now and I believe that’s how it should be.
You should feel like you’re on this journey with the character and not as though you missed it all and need a recap before jumping into a new story arch. A backstory should feel like a bonus to see more of this character and explore their personality and not be the only thing holding this character up and giving them a sense of worth or personality.
When some people watch a movie, I think they expect this fancy and detailed backstory for each main player and then feel disappointed when it isn’t given to them. To see where a character began their journey in a flashback and compare it to where they are before the credits roll presents a shortcut to character development. Instead of letting the character be looked at the way they progressed purely in the main story, they’re being judged on how they developed off screen.
Once in a while the backstory is needed immediately depending on the technique the writer is choosing to use, but in Lost I felt more attached to the characters who had their backgrounds given later on. This was because I got to know them as who they were based on their general behavior and not from what brought them to this point or influenced them aside from small hints here and there.
I do love a strong backstory, but I think they need to be waited on. If one is elaborate enough it should either be the story itself or it should be given near the end of the arch as a treat for staying with this character for so long. To understand the character as is makes the backstory all the more interesting to watch. Otherwise it feels like a long prologue that most would rather skip to get to the main plot.