For almost two years, I’ve been living in a construction zone. I spend my days dealing with contractors, moving stuff from room to room, and throwing stuff away. Throughout the process, I thought a lot about my time in college, when I could fit all of my worldly possessions in my car. I’m living proof that we spend the first half of our lives acquiring things and the second half getting rid of them. As I unearthed boxes that hadn’t been opened in decades, I found things like dog tags that belonged to my one and only dog, who’d gone to doggie heaven in the eighties, old Blue Book exams, a bracelet from a visit to Disneyland when I was four, tons of matchbooks (remember when restaurants used to give out matches?), and several boxes of old letters.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing. My writing, for the most part, has taken a holiday during the renovation, but writing still occupies a large swath of my cranial landscape. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing and feeling guilty for not finding the time to write. And like most writers, some of my experiences find their way into a story. Last week, I took a short break from renovation-related tasks and skimmed through my manuscripts. I realized all of the main characters I’ve created have kept ‘things’, like old photos, letters, tchotkes, and trinkets. They’re all keepsakes from their past. They serve as tools, which speak to a character’s past and help me develop insight into the character.
Still with me? Now, I’m going to bore you with some examples:
Happy Birthday to a Special Girl, the card read. Juliet ran a finger over the last remnants of the glitter stuck on the card. A smiling Winnie-the-Pooh held a cake with ten red candles. She slid the card back in its tattered envelope along with the cheap gold locket that hung on a tangled chain. Twenty birthdays had passed since Lynette walked out of the house on Otis Street. Although the notion her mother would remember to send her a birthday card after all this time was absurd, the passing years hadn’t smothered the hope.
- So, Juliet keeps an old birthday card her mother gave her, which provides a hint of backstory. The card is a reminder of a devastating loss, a symbol of hope, and much more. For instance, how does her mother’s abandonment affect Juliet’s relationships, her belief system, and her view of the world? Juliet was one of my favorite characters to write. It would have been too easy to make her a victim of her circumstances, so I created a character who was wiser than her years, cynical at times (a defense mechanism), but always compassionate.
Gray lowered himself onto the faded lounge chair that had seen better days poolside. Casey dressed as if she shopped from the lost and found bin at a coin laundry, so the lack of real furniture in her tiny living room was no surprise. He picked up a worn leather bound book from the rusted metal ice chest that served as a coffee table. Les Miserables—written in French. She speaks French? The Casey he knew was fluent in sarcasm. His gaze turned to a heavily tarnished tennis trophy cup stuffed with an assortment of pens and loose change. Holding it up to the light, he peered at the elaborate engraving. Cassandra Leigh Marchand – First Place Women’s Singles – Ardenwood Country Club. He’d played golf at Ardenwood, a private club with initiation fees that exceeded the cost of a degree from Yale. Something about her story wasn’t right.
- While this scene is in Gray’s POV, it provides a glimpse into Casey’s past and what I refer to as the ‘huh? moment’. The book and the trophy are inconsistent with Casey’s present lifestyle. This discovery plants a seed of doubt in Gray’s mind. Why hasn’t she been more forthcoming about her past? What is she hiding? Doesn’t she trust him and can he trust her? When I finished this scene, I realized Gray’s new revelations about Casey opened up different aspects of their relationship that I hadn’t thought of before and were worth exploring.
The phone call today changed everything. Chase rummaged through the safe, tossing aside stacks of cash and stock certificates before pulling out the small photo album. Hands shaking, he flipped it open and was greeted with a snapshot of his father clutching a six-pack of Bud. It must have been payday. He turned the page to a photo of himself straddling his ancient Indian Chief. He loved that bike, but his need to provide for Annie won out. He forced himself to look at the next photo. Annie in a pale blue sundress, her dark brown hair curling at her shoulders. So damn pretty. Her smile still took his breath away. The last page held his gold wedding band. He’d been too ashamed to tell Annie he’d bought their rings at a pawn shop. She deserved better.
- This is a ‘20/20 hindsight’ scene where the character reflects on his past. I always write pages (and pages) of character sketches before I start the story. I was having problems with Chase’s character so, I banged out this scene with the photo album to help me flesh out his character and come up with a plausible GMC. For Chase, the wedding band and pictures serve two purposes: they’re a reminder of what could have been if he and Annie had stayed together and a symbol of his heartbreak and failure. I asked myself the following questions. Why does he keep these things? Because he still had feelings for her? Or did he keep these mementos as a reminder of something he had to overcome?
Using keepsakes is one of my methods of creating characters. I usually end up with more backstory on my characters than I can use in a story, but it’s worth the effort.
Are you a sentimental packrat? Do you include mementos from your character’s past in your stories?
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