About five or six weeks ago, I rolled my ankle while walking to work. It wasn’t significant, I didn’t even lose my balance. Just a slight not okay and then okay and I continued on my way to work.
To you, this may seem like a non-story. People roll their ankles ALL the time. But this ankle has been traumatized. Many times. Over many years. This ankle was first really sprained when I was 14 years old, then again throughout the rest of high school. This is the ankle that I had reconstructed six years ago. This ankle still swells when there is a massive switch in the weather patterns, one that I am intentionally rehabbing once a week.
So a minor roll, a quick not even worth noticing not quite injury is, six weeks later, still sore, still slipping, still swollen. The small, non-injury is clearly an injury, and the emotions that I had after tearing two ligaments, after having it reconstructed, after trying to come back with atrophied muscles and incredible soreness are all living in the forefront of my mind.
When we are looking at why a character is the way they are, why they act or react the way they do, we need to make sure readers understand the emotional impact of events in their past and remember/recognize that even purely physical traumas can be accompanied with significant emotional contexts.
Honoring the Past
While we don’t want to detail every single thing that has happened to a character in our book (really, please don’t), we, as the creators of these people do need to have a familiarity with what has made them who they are at the time of the story. People aren’t just self-conscious. They don’t “get big” when confronted for no cause, and they don’t shrink away in the same situation without a reason to be cautious.
Then, after you have learned/created/acknowledged this, you need to make sure that your readers have the same opportunity to understand. You need to pick the just right time that will deepen the moment of the current situation by allowing the memory of the past to penetrate the awareness we have of what made the character who he/she is.
Merging Then with Now
One of the reasons reconciling with the past is so powerful is that it can often serve as catalyst for where the character is when the story begins and where the character would like or should like to go. Their past can be something that happened a day or week ago, or it can be something that is months, years or decades old. What is important is that the character can first, learn what it is to reconcile what they did or what happened to them with the reality of the situation.
The second is to brace themselves for what the reality means for how they have to heal, and how they have to move forward. This may mean a candid conversation with themselves, and it may mean the incorporation of a therapist, counselor or trusted confidant.
The Reality of a Past Wound
There may be some wounds, some damages, that do not allow someone to heal completely. This, too, is something that needs to be explored: how will the character continue while a little bit broken? How will they adjust to a new reality that is different from what they wanted?
Exploring a character’s past with intentionality will solidify an arc and improve the quality of a story as a whole.
Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.