One of the most bizarre things writers do is trace the lives of people that don’t even exist. Characters are more than just the names and series of events portrayed in a book. Long before we type ‘Chapter 1’, we sit down and think hard about who will inhabit the story. Not just names and personality quirks and physical descriptions, but where they went to school, and for how long, and what their first pet might have been, and whether they are scared of spiders or thunderstorms or the ocean. What are their key memories prior to the opening of the story?
Yes, I actually develop memories for my characters. The kind that we have in moments of great shock, pain, or wonder. Whether tragic or joyous, we’ve all known intense emotional experiences where we, or the world as we know it, change forever from one minute to the next. I got the idea from David Corbett’s THE ART OF CHARACTER: CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS FOR FICTION, FILM AND TV. I’ll be the first to admit that thinking about the memories of a non-existent person is extremely weird, but then so is taking notes about how much different kinds of stab wounds bleed, or making my daughter trip me to see how a character would fall.
As a writer, I’ve found that creating these life-changing moments for characters is an eye-opener. I write the memories out, as Corbett suggests. Not for inclusion in the final manuscript, but to feel for myself what drives the people I’m inventing.
Below is the essential memory for Morgan Tregarth, the hero of my recently completed manuscript, ‘A Most Improper Connection’, which takes place in the 1840s. When the story opens, this is the event that has obsessed him for nearly a decade. It’s not a prologue, nor is it in the final draft, just part of my notes about him.
Morgan set his quill down on the teakwood desk to snatch the letter with the London address from one his uncle’s numerous Indian servants. Elation dissipated as soon as he recognized his father’s handwriting. With a sigh, Morgan touched the unfinished note before him on the wooden surface.
He’d written to his wife every day since arriving in Calcutta, begging for news of her and their unborn child. So far, she had not replied, although his father included news of her whenever he wrote, usually a perfunctory line or two about her health.
Disappointed, Morgan broke the seal and unfolded this latest missive. The words didn’t register immediately: “…sorry to inform you…disappeared with all her possessions…we can find no trace…”
Breath exploded from Morgan’s lungs in a near-sob. Pushing himself to his feet, he tried to inhale again, leaning on the desk. Nothing in his nineteen years, not even the death of his mother or his father’s remarriage, had ever hit him with such force. Straightening, he left the study, oblivious to everything but the silent howl of ‘Why?’ in his mind.
Eventually he realized that he stood before the door to his bedchamber, but he had no memory of walking through the house and up the stairs. His hand shook so badly he could barely turn the handle.
Once inside, he pushed the door closed again and leaned against it. Tears stung his eyes and nose, but did not flow. After what seemed an eternity of listening to the faint sounds of the crowded street below his shuttered window, he stumbled to the bed. Seating himself on the edge, he slumped over, his hands on his knees. Out of habit, he reminded himself that he had to be strong for his wife and child, then brought himself up short. Alix had left him. He had no one to be strong for any more.
He lowered himself onto his back. As he stared up at the ghostly mosquito netting, two things coalesced in his mind. One, that he would never ever give his heart to anyone again. Two, that while Alix had turned her back on him, he was still going to be a father. He would find his child if he had to hunt until hell froze over.
Talk about fake memories! I wrote a similar scene for the heroine of ‘Most Improper Connection’. (Hint: her name is Alix.) And I wrote the key memories 0f the hero and heroine of my current work-in-progress. I just hope I don’t loose my marbles when I’m old and start telling people at the nursing home about someone’s missing wife. Hey wait, that gives me an idea for a character…
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for a reason that made perfect sense to you?