It’s a rare person who travels through life unscathed. And, like real people, our fictional characters suffer misery, pain, grief and guilt as well as excitement, happiness, hope and love. That means each of our characters has a history. Just like us, they have wounds and scars alongside happy memories. Those experiences make us who we are.
Do you need to show each of these experiences so your reader will know your characters intimately? Of course not. Your book would be the size of the Library of Congress. But you, as the author, need to know what happened to them in the past because their history affects how they behave in your novel.
When my editor at William Morrow sent back my manuscript of The Starlite Drive-in with her comments, she asked, “Why is the husband so verbally abusive?”
“Um, because he’s just a jerk.”
“No,” she said. “You need a better reason than that. And why did Teal let him treat her that way?”
So I thought about what might have happened to Claude Junior that made him belittle his wife and blame her for his mistakes. I gave Claude Junior “a stepdad who worked him to the bone and told him all the time he was never going to amount to anything.”
When Teal tells her sister that, Bliss says, “A lot of men grew up just as hard and they aren’t as mean-spirited as your…”
“Bliss!” Teal says sharply.
So why does Teal allow Claude Junior to mistreat her? Because her own father drank too much and often hit her mother.
“Beat her so bad that time she couldn’t open her eyes for a week,” Bliss says.
But Claude Junior abuses Teal verbally, not physically. As long as he doesn’t beat her, she can justify staying with him. Then one day late in the novel he strikes her hard across her face, and Teal must make one of the most critical decisions of her life.
Why are these events important in your characters’ lives? Because they form your characters’ character. A man doesn’t demean his wife for no reason. A teenager doesn’t vandalize a school for no reason. One person doesn’t kill another for no reason. Everyone has a reason or at least a rationalization for behaving the way he does. That’s called “motivation” in fiction writing lingo.
When you reveal your character’s history, you don’t need to write pages and pages (unless you’re Charles Dickens and it’s David Copperfield). Often a few sentences will do. When Aunt Bliss says to Teal’s daughter, “Don’t ever let a man treat you like a sorry speck of dirt,” she’s referring to Claude Junior and the way he treats Teal. That tells the reader this behavior has been going on for some time, and Teal should not have allowed it. In fact, it also explains why she suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t left the house in five years.
What I call “the echo technique” is a skillful way to show how an incident in the past affects an action in the present.
A scene from Susan Clayton-Goldner’s novel, Bend in the Willow, shows the setup for the echo technique: an accident that leads to the death of Michael, the four-year-old brother of the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Catherine.
The father, suffering from a hangover, tells his son Michael to go down to the root cellar to get a jar of tomato juice, saying, “There’s a thirsty woodpecker inside my skull.”
Catherine tells us Michael “was so eager to please and I wanted him to succeed, to bring the tomato juice back quickly and maybe even get a pat on the head, a thank you or a good boy.”
But that doesn’t happen. Here’s how Catherine describes it: “Mickey returned a moment later grinning, a slice of light in his eyes, holding out both hands as if offering the whole world in a jar of canned tomatoes.”
Instantly, Catherine sees her brother’s mistake.
The father grabs the jar from his son, pushes him down the concrete steps and hurls it toward the boy.
Later, the author “echoes” this traumatic event in her protagonist’s life when Catherine’s own son Michael, who is named after her deceased brother, faces death from leukemia. This scene takes place in the hospital:
“Michael’s father had left a half-full bottle of tomato juice on the windowsill. Every time she looked at it, she remembered the hopeful expression on her little brother’s face as he held out the jar of tomatoes to their father.”
A few minutes later, a male nurse comes into the room to remove the port from Michael’s chest. When Michael cries out, the nurse says, “Be a brave boy. It doesn’t hurt that much.”
Catherine tells the nurse to stop. “’He’s just a little boy. He makes mistakes. You’re the one who is supposed to be careful.”
Catherine wants to stop herself, but the room is spinning and her voice keeps rising.
“You’re the adult,” she screeches. “You’re supposed to take care of him.”
Not wanting Michael to see her cry, Catherine grabs the bottle of juice and flings it at the trashcan. Glass shatters and juice sloshes up over the sides of the can.
With the echo technique, the author doesn’t need to explain why Catherine threw the bottle. We know just enough of the character’s history to see how a wound from her past could affect her behavior in the present, allowing the writer to present the scene in the hospital subtextually.
As you’re creating your characters, consider what events from their histories might affect them today. Using that information, you can create stronger, richer, deeper characters, ones that may bring to mind the reader’s own wounds.