On Saturday I attended a writing workshop tutored by Anthony J. Quinn, a Northern Irish crime writer. We spent considerable time discussing how to develop three dimensional characters. One of the interesting suggestions he offered was to give your characters memories.
Memories make a character seem more real and can also be used to explain what they think, believe, feel and do. Like real people, characters should have thoughts, feelings and issues from their past that make them who they now are.
The writer needs to weave the memories they create for their characters seamlessly into scenes. When an event happens in the plot, the character may have a one or two sentence thought about the past that relates to the event, or a short flashback to a memory that will give the reader an insight into how the character feels or will react in the present. But it’s important not to let the memory dominate the narrative. Long flashbacks should be avoided as they will slow the pace of the plot.
A character’s memories can be triggered in various ways. A conversation with another character or an event in the plot may make the character remember something from the past. Or seeing a particular object may trigger it. Using an object as the trigger can be particularly useful if it is an item the character sees regularly or possibly one that he owns. This provides the opportunity for the character to be constantly reminded of a particular memory. If it is an unpleasant one this can be used to create anxiety, fear or sadness in the character and add to the tension in the story. If he owns the object that is tied to a powerful memory, this also may say something about him. Why he has kept the object and what it means to him may be important to explore in the story.
Something that triggers a memory doesn’t have to be physical either. In a story that I’m currently working on, one of the main characters has very vivid memories evoked when she hears a particular song. This could work with a film clip or television ad as well. In my story, the memories evoked are good ones but remembering earlier, happy times makes the character sad because she now lives hundreds of miles from the people she cares about and misses them. This illustrates that even a character’s happy memories can be used to create tension and internal conflict in a story.
One of the interesting points the tutor raised yesterday was that the landscape and the weather can both be used to evoke memories for a character. Selectively using items in the landscape, such as perhaps a dead tree or dark hills, can set the character off on a frightening or sad memory, whereas the sight of a field filled with meadow flowers on a summer’s day will likely trigger happier memories for the character.
Another interesting point to consider when creating memories for characters is that the memory doesn’t have to be accurate or reliable. The character doesn’t necessarily have to remember the past as it actually happened. This can highlight the character’s concerns, fears, desires and pre-occupations. An inaccurate memory may cause the character to feel aggrieved about something in his past and give him ‘an axe to grind’ in the present. Or it may give him unrealistic hopes and expectations about how his present should be. This could also be used as the trigger for the conflict in the plot. If the character eventually realises the inaccuracy of his memory this might provoke changes to his actions and thoughts and resolve a conflict. Or he may never realise his error and this could set him on a path to his own destruction. It depends on the type of story you wish to write.
So, when you are writing a story, allow your character to think and remember. This will draw him off the page and make him seem more real and believable to the reader.