I started the day unsure what I was going to write about. All week I wandered a barren land of mostly unproductive spurts of editing, and the thought of writing filled me with feelings of ineptitude. Finally, I stumbled on this photo and two iconic works fizzed to mind: AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.
With Hell it’s what’s up ahead, whereas Fear and Loathing is searching for a past that died without an obituary–the American Dream. And although with different perspectives, one looking ahead and one behind (with a case full of mescaline in the boot) both travelled at speed and in the same direction.
But this isn’t about the American Dream or any highway to Hell, but the rear-view mirror.
Secrets to writing about past events
As writers we peer into the past and shift through the bones of memory, hopes and truths, to retell a character’s fictitious history.
There are a multitude of reasons for writing about the past. And to clarify what I mean by past events, let’s restrict them to seminal to a character’s life; defining, both positive and negative in their lasting influence. But leave alone the bones of the mundane.
It can be a minor event from the reader’s perspective, pedestrian even, yet for the character it must have left a mark.
Why Write About Past Events
We look to the past as a mechanism to give the reader a deeper understanding why a character acts in a certain way, and for reasons behind the decisions they make; an emotional handle to grab onto. It’s human to empathise with suffering, and if our character has to overcome hardship from their past we tend to champion for them to succeed.
We identify with their weaknesses and long for their strength. We walk with them side by side into battle, rejoicing their victory and suffering their defeat. And for those we despise, take joy in their demise.
For the writer it can condense an important aspect of a person’s life in a few paragraphs. Or It can be slowly revealed as a series of accumulated events in their past.
The backstory of a character isn’t taking out the trash every week to highlight a character’s miserable childhood, unless the driveway happened to be a hundred mile round trip, or the bin weighed a ton. We’re not interested when a character blew his or her nose and blood gushed out (unless it resulted in a fear of blowing said nose, and only then if it’s relevant to the story, which it probably isn’t).
It’s the reason why a girl has daddy issues and why an adult might sleep with the light on. One powerful example involves never leaving home without having a crumb of food to eat.
Researching for his book, Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally interviewed concentration camp survivors. My recollection is they were survivors from Schindler’s factory, people Schindler saved from the gas chamber and from starving to death. Keneally would meet with them, and through the telling of their remarkable stories learned it was common, to this day, for most survivors to never go anywhere without carrying a small amount of food.
What a powerful story. In that one snippet, the imagination screams about the horror a person must have endured to behave in such a way, years after the traumatic event has passed. I think he was interviewing survivors who lived in New York. So you would expect to be no more than a few steps away from something to eat. Of course you can’t capture everything about a person with a few examples, neither should you. The reader needs to engage their imagination.
Changing the Story
The past has authority. It happened and has the benefit of yielding to your character’s whim and deliberate tampering. Their past choices can be cleansed. From a character’s perspective you can choose a different path and project what should have happened. Exaggeration and lying has its place. The flawed character is within us all.
The girlfriend who dumped you, it turned out you dumped her. Or the time you broke the bedroom window. With an eye glancing backwards it was the dog you never owned. These character traits can be telling about the future choices a character might make.
And it can go the other way. Claiming responsibility for someone else’s mistakes while playing down your character’s heroic actions, has the character cast in a favourable light. However, when writing about a character’s past it must be for a reason. Either to help the reader understand the character, or to drive the story forward.
Also published on Medium.