As much as we’d like to think we can re-invent ourselves at will, our past always retains its influence on our present and our future. It’s often difficult to admit that events which occurred decades ago can retain such power on how we think and act today, even though we might try to go beyond them and fail, time and time again. I’m sometimes puzzled by my own reactions to people or events, but if I take the time to analyse them, I can inevitably trace a line back, tenuous as it might be, to something in my past that left a mark I often didn’t know was there. I suppose Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life isn’t worth living applies here, in terms of understanding why where we came from has such a deep influence on who we are.
This, I’m finding, becomes very important when developing fictional characters that are more than just two dimensional cut-outs. To make them compelling, my protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast can’t just spring fully formed into existence. Their actions and thoughts in the story’s ‘present’ have to be informed by their past. I’ve discovered that this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Just like examining oneself in order to understand one’s own motivations, I have to make sure my characters’ motivations stem from something other than just the needs of the moment, but without wasting hundreds of words in a character’s agonizing self-examination. The reader needs to intuit the influence of the past rather than have it spelled out in great detail. I’ve seen it done in many novels, tv shows and movies, and when it works, you can really get into the character’s head, whether he or she is the good guy or the bad guy. But when it’s done with a heavy hand, I often stop reading or watching the story. The balance is hard to achieve, which is why so many protagonists in science-fiction stories seem to lack depth – though in all fairness, in many cases, the science or technological aspect takes centre stage to the detriment of character development.
What I’ve tried so far, with a modicum of success, is ask myself, when a character does something unexpected, why he or she acted or thought that way. If I can find a reason that could rationally stem from the individual’s past history, then the scene remains in the book. If I can’t find one or the reason is too far-fetched, I delete the scene. Would that I could delete some of the real-life scenes I’ve caused because I didn’t quite understand where my own reactions came from.