Letting Go of the Past: How characters turn lies into truth

If you’ve lived into your teens (insert age here), it’s a safe bet there’s something in your past you’d like to forget. Book characters have these moments, too. And good book characters learn, over the course of the story they populate, how to change that moment from a lie into a truth. That moment, which before was a weakness, suddenly becomes a source of strength, and they can overcome their final obstacle and win the day.

But, how does the author ferret out this moment of despair or heartache or supreme stupidity that becomes the character’s lie?

There are many ways authors employ to search through a character’s past. Some authors, myself included, begin writing the first chapter or two as a way to “get to know” the character’s personality, mindset, and reactions. We plunk our character amid other characters and watch them interact. Afterwards, we might sit them down (if you aren’t an author, bear with me–these bits of ink and imagination are real to those of us who wield the keyboard) and interview them as to why they reacted the way they did or what made them choose a particular response. The answers given help us authors develop a character sketch. Susan May Warren calls this an SEQ or Story Equation. She wrote a book on it.

Before we can complete the SEQ, we must dig deep into the character’s past and find the dark moment story (DMS). Within the DMS are embedded the character’s lie, wound, and maybe even their greatest dream and values. I write out the DMS in first person, telling it as the character would from his/her point of view.

Sometimes the original DMS changes as the story progresses and the plot and theme clarify themselves. That’s okay. I just go back and revise the SEQ to match the new DMS.

But, you may ask, how do you decide on the DMS? How do you know you’ve got the right moment from the past? Just keep asking questions. When I find something my character’s past that feels like it could be poignant enough to create the emotional wound and a lasting lie the character believes, I ask if the incident I’ve discover was the original issue or if it is a result of an even earlier incident?

For example: If my character–let’s call her Ann–has trouble trusting anyone at the start of the story, I would look for a time when she was betrayed by someone she thought she could trust in her past. Perhaps a girl Ann thought was her best friend rejects her for a popular boy that Ann also likes. That could be her DMS, but if she was in her teens, I should probably look farther into her past. What if I discover that her uncle, who she idolized as a young child, backed out on a long-planned birthday trip to the zoo, leaving her to celebrate with no party, no friends, and few gifts. And what if several years before that, her father had done the same thing and never returned home.

Now we have something truly traumatizing that happened when Ann was three or four, was reinforced when she was seven or eight, and repeated in her teens. This history of repetition creates a powerful DMS that will be difficult for Ann to overcome. It will take a complete change of thinking and mindset to provide enough power to overturn the lie (that she is not worthy of attention) and heal the wound (everyone she loves abandons her). This is what will happen over the course of the story as Ann encounters and overcomes obstacles. Even when she fails, the lessons she learns will lead to change.

At about the 75% point of the novel, Ann will have to confront a situation similar to her DMS. Here she will be forced to choose the old way of thinking or the new way, and dealing with this personal crisis amid the other plot conflicts will change the outcome and lead to new power to storm the castle, overcome the antagonist, and save the day. She will recognize her own lie and reject it for the truth–that she is worthy of attention–everyone is.

Some authors spend enough time with their characters that they can complete the SEQ prior to writing any of the book at all. Each author and set of characters are different and may require different means to discover the needed information. Often discussions with craft partners or others will free the information. However it is unveiled, writing the SEQ and DMS are essential. They will save tremendous time in rewrites and clarification once the novel is written and provide valuable tethers to keep the writing on track during the drafting process.

For readers, these events may occur without our realizing what is happening or all the thought that went into the events, but without these elements, the story will feel unsatisfying and lack emotional depth. Readers may not know the name of these character traits, but they will notice if any are absent.

I hope this was helpful, but if anything was unclear or you have another technique I didn’t mention, comment or send me an email: rebeccareed333@gmail.com I’d love to connect with you. I read and answer all comments and emails.

Thanks for reading and many words to you!

If you enjoyed this post you may want to sign up for my periodic newsletters which include info about my writing, life, and book recommendations. There’s a free fantasy short story in it for you.