Give Your Characters Memories

by James Scott Bell

Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories. — Steven Wright

We often talk about a character’s backstory, including a “wound” that haunts as a “ghost” in the present. It’s a solid device, giving a character interesting and mysterious subtext at the beginning. The wound is revealed later as an explanation. (Think of Rick in Casablanca. “I stick my neck out for nobody” and his casual using of women. The wound of Ilsa’s “betrayal” doesn’t become clear until the midpoint).

An often overlooked, but equally useful item, is a character’s memories. These can show up when we want a deeper look inside. It is sometimes recalled as a flashback, but can also be revealed in a dialogue exchange. One of my favorite examples of the latter is when the three friends in City Slickers are riding along together and share the best day and worst day of their lives.* In my workshops I have the students do a best day-worst day voice journal for their Lead, and suggest they do the same for other main characters, including the villain.

Another way to access this material is through your own memories. And a good way to do that is via morning pages. One exercise is to write I remember and just go. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Follow the tangents. The other morning I did just that:

I remember a mobile hanging above my crib. Do I? Or did I formulate it later as a created memory? I don’t know, but I can see it even now.

A nursery school memory I know is real. There was a girl crying in the room, which had walls with nursery rhyme murals on them. I vividly recall a grandfather clock with a mouse running up. Anyway, I went up to the girl and started to pet her hair. I didn’t want her to be sad. 

In third grade there was a girl in our class named Leslie. She was sort of an outsider. Never said much. One rainy day I was walking home from school in my raincoat when I came upon Leslie crying her little eyes out. She was having trouble holding her books, lunchbox and umbrella. So I took the books from her and offered to walk her home. Immediately she brightened up and chatted away all the way to her house.

Not long after that I was riding my bike when I made a wrong move and crashed into a tree. Down I went. My arm exploded in pain. As I lay there moaning, a woman ran out of her house to check on me. She helped me up and into her house, where she called my mom to come and get me. Mom took me to our family doctor (remember those?), the same doctor, Dr. Depper, who had delivered me into the world. My arm wasn’t broken, but it got wrapped up and put in a sling. When we got home, Mom turned on the TV. My favorite show was on, Huckleberry Hound. Mom gave me some ice cream.

About forty years later, Mrs. B and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant when an elderly gentleman came in with his wife and was seated.

“You see that man?” I said to Cindy. “He’s the doctor who delivered me.”

I went over. “Dr. Depper?”


“I’m Rosemary Bell’s son.”

“Well I’ll be!”

“I remember your office in Canoga Park. You had a great aquarium in the waiting room.”

“Oh, yes. Those were the days, weren’t they?”

Yes indeed, those were the days, and the memories are priceless.

Do you give your characters memories?

What’s your earliest memory? 

What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?

*Here’s that scene from City Slickers. It’s beautiful writing.


37 thoughts on “Give Your Characters Memories

  1. ❖ Do you give your characters memories?
    Not always. Tenirax remembers his dead father’s library. The claustrophbic Horus Blassingame, hiding from the police, gets trapped between two locked close-set doors and drops the key. He soothes himself by singing his old school song, including the ribald version. The girl in “Sail Away on My Silver Dream,” remembers thinking her doll was a real baby when they lived on Deodar Street. (It was.) My Adolf Hitler remembers a lot of things, but shares few with his therapist, Dr. Jung, choosing to lie, instead.

    ❖ What’s your earliest memory?
    My father bringing home a small, brass-colored bugle, probably a toy. I’m standing in a crib, so this is a very early memory.

    ❖ What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?
    In 2nd grade, when I was six, I was crying on the school yard. Apparently no one had picked me up after school, and a little girl named Sharon came over and gave me a playing card from her collection to cheer me up. I wish I still had that card.

  2. My characters are forever going off on memory tangents.

    Earliest memory: I got caught in a rip current when I was about three in the Gulf of Mexico. I remember watching the beach get farther away and wondering why. My family and some other people grabbed hands and made a chain with my father in the lead. He never took his eyes off of me. He came out to me, pulled me close and carried me to shore.

    Kindness: My last day of school – November in third grade the day before we moved from Alabama to New York. My classmates gave me a little satchel with cards they had made for me to read on my trip. My friend Joey walked me home (which he had never done before), gave me a little red rabbit’s foot for luck and said he was sorry I was moving away because he had hoped to marry me one day.

    • Cyntha: Wow…I had the same almost-drowned memory. I think I was about 5 or 6. We were at a family outing at a Michigan lake. I waded out too far and the bottom gave way. I VIVIDLY remember the swirling blue-green all around me and I remember feeling peaceful. (if a little kid can even think of such a word). The next memory is a hard yank on my hair. My uncle Lanny saw me and pulled me back.

      This memory was so strong it became the central character memory of my book She’s Not There. Thomas & Mercer asked us for cover art suggestions and I asked for a floating woman in water. They did us proud.

  3. My characters do have memories. Sometimes they reminisce aloud about a past event, sometimes it’s an internal thought.

    My earliest memory is sitting in a crib, wondering if I stuck a pin in my leg if I’d pop like a balloon. I don’t remember how I accessed a pin with a “pearl” on the end of it.

    A kindness: during kindergarten recess, when I walked in the path of a swing, getting hit, one of my classmates took me inside to the teacher. The two of us got in trouble because everyone else thought recess was done and followed us.

  4. I love the idea of journaling my characters’ best and worst memories.

    I remember when I was about five and at a grown up dinner party with my parents. (They must not have been able to find a babysitter for me.) During the after-dinner coffee when there was none for me because I was too young for the hot beverage in a fancy cup, the kind hostess snuck me into the kitchen and made me a highly-sugared, warm mocaccino in a plastic cup.

    • That’s a nice one, Vera. I remember some “grown up” parties in our neighborhood, and one of the adults gave me a taste of beer from a bottle. I didn’t like it at all. Kool Aid was my beverage of choice.

      • Reminds me of the time my family was having a picnic in the backyard–I snatched my father’s plastic cup for a drink, thinking he was drinking lemonade and it was beer. YUCK! Turned me off alcohol forever (so sometimes there are good results from impulsive behaviors. LOL!)

  5. Thanks for the clip of City Slickers. The one character’s (forgot his name!) best/day worst day reminded me to pray for broken familes.

    Do you give your characters memories?
    Yes. This is one of the easier aspects of writing since we all have something we can draw from in real life to flesh out our characters.

    What’s your earliest memory?
    I have a totally bizarre memory to share. Just as you’re not sure you really *do* remember seeing a mobile above your crib but see it plain as day, I have one that has always felt like a real memory but can’t possibly be. When I was a kid living in Delaware (I was 4-5 years old) I *swear* I saw a T-Rex soaring above the back-side of what was then the equivalent of a Circle-K that was caddy-cornered across the street from where we lived. I saw him from the neck up & he was feisty. I was always told I had a wild imagination but what makes this pseudo-memory so weird is 1) I was never much into the dinosaur thing even as a kid and 2) I remember precious little from a young age and the fact that even now, decades later, that still feels like such a real memory is WEIRD!

    The only other young childhood memory is a precious one–taking my collie/shepherd mix, Bob Barker, for Show & Tell to Kindergarten class. I still miss that boy.

    What act of kindness were you shown when you were young? I was blessed with a great family and good people around me so fortunately kindness was not rare. The main kindness that sticks out to me is one I’ve shared before–Mrs. Seese, one of my grade school teachers, who launched me into writing when she got my corny poem published in the county newspaper. I’ll be forever thankful to her for that.

  6. My characters have memories as they suit the stories.

    I remember being scared because there was a huge bee hovering over my crib, and my mom coming in, stroking it, and saying it was just a dream. For a long time, I thought dreams were big bees.

  7. You’re right, Jim. The writing in that scene… flawless.
    Do you give your characters memories?
    Absolutely. I especially like the memories that haunt them, but I also include good memories once in a while if it’s relevant.

    What’s your earliest memory?I don’t recall if it’s the earliest, but it’s as vivid today as then. I was about three or four. Mom took me to the mall at Christmastime, and while she was searching through a clothes rack, music captured my attention. I followed it out to the stage, where a band played. I danced. I sang. I knew every word of the songs. And then they brought me on stage and handed me the mic. When Mom — frantic and frazzled — found me, I was belting out, “Sing” by the Carpenters.

    What act of kindness were you shown when you were young? Same memory, though I was shown a lot of kindness as a child.

  8. Do you give your characters memories?
    My MC in my Mad River Magic series has Becker muscular dystrophy. I use his memories as flashbacks to explain his fears, goals, and handicaps.

    What’s your earliest memory?
    At age 3-4 our family moved from northern Indiana to Ohio. I remember one of my uncles giving me a ride on a chair as he carried it down the steps.

    What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?
    I don’t remember this, but was told that as a toddler of 2-3 I managed to escape the fenced backyard with a friend and a little red wagon. Our apartment was beside busy railroad tracks in Indianapolis. We managed to get across the tracks and were heading back when a train was coming. My mother discovered the open gate, and came screaming. She saw the train, two little boys and a red wagon, and knew she couldn’t get there in time. An elderly lady, stopped at the railroad crossing, climbed out of her car and grabbed a hand of my friend and me, and hung on until the train passed.

  9. My characters do have memories, good and bad. Their memories give me the “why” of what’s happening to them. First they tell me, then they show the reader.

    My earliest memory? I have two.

    At about age 5, it was icy on the sidewalk in front of our house. My two-year-old sister fell straight backwards, banging her head on the concrete. Dad rushed over and picked her up. She was unconscious. My brother and I thought she was dead. I’ll never forget that feeling.

    Another one, starring same brother. We played cowboys and Indians in the orchard near our house. I always had to be the Indian (according to the Bro). He had six-guns, I had a bow and arrow made from a tree branch. On this particular day, Bro captured me, threw a rope over a tree limb in our back yard and tried to hang me, because I was the bad guy. I dangled about 2 feet off the ground until mom looked out the kitchen window. I still remember her racing out the back door, swatting Bro on the butt on her way, then hauling me down to the ground.

    Every once in awhile, I remind the Bro that he tried to hang me once and we have a good laugh over it.

  10. I trust my characters and let the story unfold as they live it. As a result, they bring their own memories to the story. Always a surprise, and always something the reader can’t anticipate because even I didn’t anticipate it.

  11. Jim, excellent reminder that memories are a big part of what builds a character.

    Yes, my characters have memories that haunt them. The tough part is not to delve too deeply into the past and slow down the story taking place in the present.

    Earliest memory: sitting on concrete steps beside the driveway of our house, waiting seemingly forever, bored and lonely. I must have been about four. My friends, who were all much older (five and six), went to kindergarten until noon. Until they got home, time absolutely dragged b/c I had no one to play with.

    Kindnesses: too many to count but thanks for jogging my memory to bring back some good memories and make me appreciate them again.

    • Good reminder, Debbie, that pace is important. Sometimes a thriller wants to slow down a bit, and memory would be a good way to do that. I mention this only because I do it from time to time in my Romeo books.

  12. Great reminder about memories. I understand we sometimes remember things that didn’t actually happen, but were told to us by others so that our brains store the info as memory.

    Yes, my characters have things in their past they remember or allude to without being specific. Most of them remember good times with family.

    My first memory was standing at the front door of our house, holding hands with my mother as my brother came home from school. I must have been 3. I remember Mother smiling and chatting away about how much fun I would have when I was old enough to go to school. The next year I started kindergarten — and oh! the memories there.

    I have been on the receiving end of so many kindnesses, it would be hard to pick one out.

  13. 1. Do you give your characters memories?

    Of course I do. Especially since I reflexively give backstory in the form of yarns, sometimes only a sentence or two long, but sometimes much longer.

    To give an example at random, one of my characters reminisced that when he was little and hanging around with his big sister they’d play pranks on the local vampires, such as leaving notes on their doors claiming to be Jehovah’s witnesses and promising to return after dark to talk about Jesus, something that they appreciated about as much as crosses and sunlight. This was one way I established what vampires were like and how locals responded to them before the reader encountered any.

    2. What’s your earliest memory?

    I remember being a toddler held in the arms of a friendly policeman and being served an ice cream cone by a nice young lady in an ice cream parlor. I don’t remember the part about walking across a busy four-lane road to the nearby shopping center or being returned to my mother.

    3. What act of kindness were you shown when you were young?

    I’ve already mentioned the ice cream cone. When I was around seven, my grandmother let me do anything I liked in her large and meticulously maintained garden provided I left the actual plants alone. I remember digging a river system starting under her semi-dwarf apricot tree and extending between the rows of plants and sending leaves and sticks on voyages of exploration while consuming an enormous amount of water. The devastation would have appalled a less hardy soul, but no plants were harmed, so she expressed admiration for my work instead.

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