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.