Tainted Memories

You can use various ways of delving deeper into the factors underpinning a background story. Recapturing it moment by moment from inside a character’s mind reaps greater benefits than a narrative summary cataloging the events. The same principle can be applied in the long range as well. What causes a character to think of a particular memory?

To examine this question, let’s look at how that process often works in fiction. A present-day event comes up, and afterward the character states the age-old source of their reaction to the event. The handoff from present to past may be as abrupt as inserting a line-space break (two returns on the keyboard) and launching directly into the flashback.

A more effective method is identifying the long-range patterns (you can call them neuroses) that lead to the memory. The same in-depth approach is used. You take the present-day event and ask: why am I raising this point about the character? You chose the event deliberately, so you must know. Just write out the reason as a note to yourself. To use the running example: “Elena explodes because her father yelled at her all the time when she was growing up.”

You can make that into a mental loop for the character. Consider first the direct links to the past. What is the present status of the father in her life? How did his relationship with her mother change over time? How does that affect Elena’s visits home? What has Elena told a friend or lover about how it impacted her? When you start to consider the issue in the long run, you can start telling a summary narrative about life-long traumatic effects.

Now turn the prism away from the past. Elena is certainly aware that her explosions aren’t normal. When has she exploded before and, more important, with which major characters in the novel? While in the midst of her yelling, how is she processing the reaction of the person under fire? That isn’t the same as dear old dad’s reaction. How does she feel about being wrong—with that person, considering their relationship? Has a past explosion changed the relationship? What were her practical consequences, such as going to a therapist for help? After all, most people want to avoid the shame that follows such an event.

Finally, consider how this loop changes over the course of the novel. If Elena’s explosions dig her into a deeper and deeper hole, that neurosis is going to break her. By contrast, if someone else helps her get over it, how does her thinking about the loop change step by step? You can insert other background stories, new ones that she can hold onto—her new image of herself—and become healed.

Exercise: Don’t forget that you can color memories to suit the character’s perspective. In a dark mood, you recall your own memories differently, adding a nasty snap to the other person’s motives. If you start off a character arc with negatively charged memories and end with ones that are more even-handed, the character’s very manner of recollection creates an emotional swell toward hope.

“I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long."     —Joseph Heller

Copyright @ 2023 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.