Live in the moment, philosophers and gurus tell us. For a novelist, that is rotten, horrible, no good advice!
The past fills the present and the future. Its tracks and traces are everywhere, if we can but read them.
- Remember that whack I took from a baseball bat when I was nine? I sure do. The scar is faint but visible above my right eye, and my vision on that side has never been the same.
- My dad came from a long line of bakers and my mother was an artist with dough. (Not the money kind, though!) My teeth, alas, bear witness to yesteryear’s sweet tooth.
Trivial examples, sure. But a novelist’s task is to use a character’s past to create the character’s present.
Leave the Past in the Past? No Way!
In thinking about a character’s past, ask yourself “How has the character been wounded?” Once you know the wound, you can either use it as a fatal flaw, a weakness to be fixed or overcome or as motivation for a character’s actions.
I recently reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Both Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth were wounded by the abrupt end of their engagement, seven years before, and the wounds still ooze. Austen spend 300 pages overcoming her characters’ unhealed pain so they can love again.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has been so wounded by threats to take away her dog, Toto, that she runs away from home. By the end of the movie, the wound heals and she realizes that there’s no place like home.
In my own The Trial of Tompa Lee, Tompa has been scarred by having to live by her wits on the streets of Manhattan. She has both an inferiority complex and a huge chip on her shoulder. Throughout the book, her powerful reactions to this scar from the past determine many of her actions and help to make her a vivid character.
The Past Fills in the Details
Another use for the past is to fill in a character’s interests, hobbies, and preferences. A character without a past is a character without a present.
This is (or should be) so obvious that I won’t bother you with examples from literature. Instead, I’ll circle back to my own youth, which I started with.
Back in high school, I fell in love with the sound of a symphony orchestra. I wasn’t interested in playing in the school’s band. I wanted the orchestra, which is why I learned to play the oboe. And I still play it in the Civic Orchestra of Tucson.
While I like classical music in general, it’s probably more accurate to say that I am in love with the infinite variability of the orchestra. As an example of that sweet variability, here is a rather unclassical example: The Witches’ Dance from John Williams score for the movie The Witches of Eastwick. Enjoy this gift from my past to your present!