12.03.2020

Tainted Memories, Part 1

The process of immersion into a character has many different aspects. One basic technique is learning to think about how a character would react to a plot event. Another low-lying fruit is putting a character’s thoughts into italic type, creating inner dialogue. A third useful tool is creating background stories, so you understand better how a character would react in any given situation. You can take a further step and charge such back stories so they become those really terrific ones you read in good books.

To start, consider the most primitive model. Say you want to explore why Elena reacts so explosively whenever anyone raises their voice to her. You think about it and you decide it was dear old dad, who yelled at everyone in the household after he’d downed enough beers. You decide to recall one night in particular that was harrowing for Elena. The story unspools, you crank out a page, and it looks, well, definitely okay.

The reason it isn’t more is because many attempts at such stories are “factual” retellings. By that I mean that you are trying to faithfully recall what happened. You place Elena in the house, perhaps in the upstairs hallway. You catalogue the father’s drinking, then his coming upstairs, and the abuse of his daughter. All vivid and yet it feels like an action/adventure scene.

You’re not digging deep enough. You might want to consider: If Elena was old enough to suffer meaningful trauma, she was independent enough to have a fully realized life outside that event. She might have desires to protect her mother, or actually have done so in the past. She might have just emerged from her brothers’ bedroom, and Alfie was teasing her about the nerd with the huge schnozzola who follows her around. “Everywhere, Elena!” When she sees all the empties lined up on the coffee table in front of the TV, she already knows what’s what. She’s been through some variant of this scenario before, and she has feelings—fear maybe, but also extreme annoyance because of fucking Alfie and here’s the king of her crappy household getting wasted again. Now what happens when Daddy lashes into her?

To make any background story fully involving, you need to think through all of the predicate circumstances at that very moment. You’re not just reaching back into the past. You want to get inside her when it happens, and the only way to do that is to know what is going on with everyone around her. How old her parents were, the state of their marriage, the states of their jobs. How old her siblings were, who ranked highest with the parents, in school, and Elena’s standing with them. That’s when the magic really happens.

Exercise: Try to write the memory the first time only in terms of what your key character experiences. The father’s drunkenness, for example, is then viewed only through her eyes. See if you can attach an opinion she has about every single step of the incident. You can always pare them back later. You’ll find that key facts emerge as something mentioned in passing. That’s a mark of immersion.

“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.