One of the richest places to mine a character is through experiences that have left a deep mark on them—those memories that are still ultra-tender to the touch (or thought). As a thriller writer, my goal is to create an intricate web where everything in the novel connects to something else. Sometimes the thinnest connections from a character’s past can make or break a strong plot.
For my latest novel, Whereabouts Unknown, I spent a lot of time exploring the past of a teen who has the autoimmune disorder Lupus. When we meet Annabelle, there is a mountain of pain beneath her surface, and I knew digging into that pain had to be the key to solving the crime at the novel’s center. What I needed was to find the source of Annabelle’s vulnerability and doubt to ultimately understand her motivation.
My favorite scholar of vulnerability, Brene Brown, says “Vulnerability is at the core, the center of meaningful human experiences.” Vulnerability makes our characters feel like relatable humans, gives them something to overcome and, ultimately, makes them stronger people. So much of that vulnerability begins in our character’s past.
This gets to the heart of why it’s so essential that our main characters be as alive and complex on the page as they are inside our heads. Here are three tips to help you achieve just that.
Mine a character’s past experiences through their own voice.
Give your character opportunities to reveal what happened to them in their own words. Their descriptions about their pain and experiences will be more accurate and profound than any other narrator’s. In my case, Annabelle’s voice began in journal entries about her illness and difficult relationships. Once I gave her the space to tell her own story, I realized there was so much more that needed to be revealed. So much, in fact, Annabelle became a bigger point-of-view character than I’d originally intended.
Try this exercise: From your character’s point of view, write a journal entry, email or letter to a family member or friend on the anniversary of a significant event, after your character has been triggered by something or someone in their environment. What words do they use to describe the events(s) and their own reactions? How does the character write about behaviors or habits that they’ve developed to keep themselves safe from further emotional pain?
Research responses to trauma.
Admittedly, Google is my go-to for all things in question, but other valuable resources have helped me decipher how a character’s present life would be impacted by a past wound. Here are a couple favorites:
These tools can be used as guides, but of course they’re just the beginning. If you do not have experience with the mental health issue you’re writing about, try talking with someone who does and is willing to share their experience.
3.Tighten the links.
If you decide to highlight a character’s past trauma, it should be integral to the novel.
In other words, if the past trauma is removed from the narrative, the novel shouldn’t hold together. Be mindful of using trauma merely as a tool or a short cut to explain away violent and abusive behavior.
Dr. Drea Letamendi, a psychologist who helps writers develop characters, warns these methods can be detrimental for those with mental health disorders. In addition, pairing a villain with violence and mental illness can contribute to stigma against people living with mental illness. Dr. Letamendi points out that most people with mental health disorders are not violent and are in fact vulnerable to becoming the victims of violence due to their disorder.
There’s a danger, to be sure, in wallowing too much in a character’s painful past, but in my experiences, the benefits outweigh the risks. Whereabouts Unknown would not be the novel it is today without Annabelle’s wounds of her past. So go ahead: Dive deep. Your resulting story will be deeper, too.
Meredith Doench is the author of the Luce Hansen thriller series and Whereabouts Unknown (Bold Strokes Books). Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden’s Ferry Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Tahoma Literary Review. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and is a board member of Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest Chapter and a professor of creative writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio.