Years ago when I did psychological evaluations for the court, I often found myself astonished at the horrors of a client’s past. It was unbelievable to me that parents could be as cruel and unthinking as so many were. Learning about the past of my clients helped me understand the predicament in which they were caught in the present.
As an evaluator I worked backwards, like a detective trying to learn enough about the person I was interviewing or treating, to be able to properly diagnose them and make recommendations to the court for disposition, or to myself or one of the therapists working for me for a treatment plan.
As a writer, you are often doing the same. You introduce your readers to your characters in their present, and only piece by piece do you reveal information about their past.
When we write fiction – romantic, mystery, historical novels or other kinds – we want our characters to come alive and feel real to our readers. We want to create some sense of who they are now and how they got to be that way, without boring our readers with demographic details.
So, we tempt them with tidbits about the past. Perhaps we do this through memories, dreams, or introductions made by other characters in the book. How though do you decide what your character’s past should be and which tidbits to release when and where? Some writer’s create character timelines, others let their characters emerge as they write.
Whichever you prefer, may I suggest that you at least create a history for your characters whether you actually use the information or not. There is always (ok, almost always) a reason people are who they are today – whether good or bad.
If parents dis-respect their children the consequences are often extreme. Either the child becomes weak, passive, and unwilling to take risks, or they rebel and test themselves to the extreme.
If parents are too kind and permissive, they create a cotton candy type of environment which often leads to overly-comfortable children unwilling to do anything to lose the safety and comfort of their environment.
Cruel and heartless parents create severe emotional problems – sometimes violence, sometimes extreme passivity.
Incest does terrible things to its victims. They fear their sexuality, and that usually shows by these victims hiding through obesity and/or the manner in which they dress in oversized, heavy clothing that hides their bodies. Yet, these same people, as adults could be using sex as a price to be paid for friendship.
Children raised in very strict religious households similar to the way Carl Jung was raised often create extreme good/bad aspects of their personalities. Jung called these shadows.
Children raised in sexually repressive societies, similar to the one in which Sigmund Freud studied, become quite neurotic about their sexual desires. One has only to see the modern play “Spring Awakening” to get a sense of the horrors created by these repressive societies.
But your character had other influences as well as his or her parents. Uncles, aunts, siblings, friends, neighbors and the community itself all contribute to anyone’s world view. So, where was your character raised: rural, city, church-going community or other country with different customs and beliefs? You need to know it all.
I think often about the conflict between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Although I have no inside information, what has always occurred to me was that he came from Harlem and was a loud-mouthed zoot-suiter in his day; she came from a cloistered small town in a highly religious and safe community. They were a bad fit. He came on to her in his Harlem show-off style, and she recoiled in horror. Their differences led to their decision not to date – but they remained good and respectful colleagues for many years after that bad introduction to dating.
People are different based on their backgrounds. They see the world differently and relate to the same stimuli differently. Our assumptions and perceptions of reality often interfere with our seeing reality clearly.
Make your characters come alive by giving them a complex but consistent background.