What does your character wish for? We all have something that we think will make us whole, happy. The fun we can have as writers is to go inside our character’s heads on the page and NOT give them what they want OR give it to them and make sure that once gotten, it’s somehow lacking, not at all what they expected.
Backstory to me is the storyteller’s gold. It is that silk lining woven into the hem of a favorite skirt, not seen, but so lush and soft against the skin. Sitting at cafes, coffee shoppes, in a comfy leather chair at Borders, I eavesdrop on people and get fabulous backstory ideas to use in my stories. People in the real world don’t edit themselves when they think their conversation is private. It’s kinda like that saying – character is who you are when no one is warching. I saw one woman slip a note inside a book cover, then walk away, nearly sobbing. The note said simply, ‘You must do the right thing. You must marry her. I will always love you.’ I heard another woman, who looked to be in her mid-70’s, say to a friend, ‘He said I’d never amount to much. Can you imagine a father saying that to his daughter?’ I overheard a woman in a London pub say this to another woman: ‘I’ve known your husband for years, but you wouldn’t know that. My cat used to shit in your planter. But you wouldn’t know that either.’
When I was getting my first Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, I worked with teenagers in a 30 day lock-down facility. These kids were just weeks away from turning 18 and aging out of the Juvenile Justice System. This one boy, Kevin, who I had a soft spot for, held a knife to my throat in a kitchen stand-off late one night, pulling me into a butler’s closet.
As I was waiting to be rescued by one of my colleagues, Kevin brushed my hair and sang to me, beautiful songs he had written to a mother who abandoned him when he was only two.
He remembered the sweet smell of his mother’s hair. At her funeral, he asked his grandmother for scissors to cut a tuft of his drug-addicted, dead mother’s hair. He carried it still, in his wallet, taped to a tattered Denny’s napkin.
What would any of us be without our history? It can be our destiny or our chance at a do-over. Like all of you, I love creating my characters. Sosie Bend, my heroine in my novel Night Surfing, loves vintage world globes and wears her mother’s wedding band on her right ring finger. She wonders what people keep under their pillows at night and drops pennies on the ground near elementary schools so children will find them and feel special, the way she did as a child. She loves the color blue, a blue within blue of sky meeting water on a summer’s afternoon. Calling herself a Love Amnesiac after a sad break-up, Sosie starts a blog called “Love, Sosie” promising to spend the rest of her life trying to find this one thing she really wants.
In the end, when we’re lucky, our characters tell us who they are and the best we can do is just stay out of their way and run with it. But on the days when they (or we!) are sluggish, not really in the mood to write (oh, yes, we ALL have those days!) ask yourself, what does my hero or heroine REALLY wish for? The answer may surprise even you!
MARY KENNEDY EASTHAM, MA, MFA is a 2010 Celebrity Achiever. Her book, The Shadow of a Dog I Can’t Forget is now in its Fifth Printing. She hopes to finish her first novel Night Surfing by year’s end. Her work has garnered numerous literary awards, among them the Chekhov and Allen Ginsberg awards and the $5,000 Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Award.
She is a Judge in San Francisco for the Soul-Making Literary Contest and was a Judge in the 2011 EPIC Ebook Competition. The great loves of her life are her four Golden Retrievers – Sabrina, JoJo, Flynn and puppy Oliver.