Using Memories to Shape Our Characters

characters writing authors chalkboard-620316_960_720Most of us know that memory can be a slippery, elusive thing. Ask any small group to describe the same incident and each one will recall it differently.

Many of you may be familiar with a common game played during training sessions in the workplace. The first person in the circle is given a scenario and told to whisper it word for word to the person next to them. Each person then passes it on to the next. The last one repeats it aloud. When it is compared to the original it inevitably differs, often in many ways, in spite of the instruction to repeat it word for word.

When my sister and I discuss events from our childhood, the disparity has on occasion even led to arguments, especially when one of us feels she has been victimized. Talking them over has actually strengthened our relationship.

A friend of mine recently recounted an anecdote from her childhood. Her younger brother remains convinced to this day that his father tried to drown him when he was four by pushing his head under water. Yet as my friend – his older sister –recalls it, her brother fell into the water at the end of a pier, his father raced over and grabbed him by the hair to prevent him from going under again, actually saving his life.

This last instance shows just how extreme the differences can be. Yet, all parties in these examples recalled their stories as accurately as possible. Not one made any attempt to deceive. They all told what they believed was the truth. This was their reality.

This was brought home to me as I contemplated writing my memoir. In it I know I will narrate the incidents I refer to as truthfully as I am able. At the same time I am painfully aware that my recollections are subjective and so, necessarily biased. It’s supposed to be non-fiction – but is it? Is there even such a thing?

That got me thinking about the idea of using memory as a device in writing fiction. I know that those who write court dramas, police action stories, or mystery and detective fiction use the fallibility of memory as a matter of course. Who saw what, said what, when, where, when, and so on? These novels are all about ferreting out the truth and that’s what makes them such fun to read. Which witness do we believe? Whodunnit? One difference in these novels is that the “witness” is often deliberately choosing to deceive.

But what about the rest of us? What about the other genres within fiction where uncovering  the truth is less important than knowing what motivates our characters? While many fiction writers refer to memories their characters have, I wonder how many of us have really explored using them to their full advantage. How much attention do we give to the memories our characters express and how they can enhance our stories or help us understand and develop our characters? Do we take into account that those memories are, in all likelihood, distorted? Do we explore those distortions and ask ourselves what the real truth is? Do we dig deep enough to find out why our character may recall something in a particular way or how that has shaped their development or world view? Is it important or salient to the story?

These characters are telling their truth. The attempt to deceive is missing. How much does it matter for that particular character and that particular novel? How do the divergent accounts affect our characters, both as individuals and in their relationships – even relationships with others not present or involved when the memory was formed?

For some of us these issues are less important. But my writing is character-driven. I like to get inside the minds of my creations and show readers why they do what they do, how they feel, how they got to be who they are. I have on occasion referred to a memory of a character. But I must admit that, until now, I have not considered delving deeply into the idea of the subjective quality of memory as a way to explore my character’s personality or motivation. I have not used it as a tool, a device to enhance my characters and drive my plots. I’ll certainly be paying more attention to it in the future.

As they say in the X-Files, “The truth is out there”. Or is it?

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

13 thoughts on “Using Memories to Shape Our Characters”

  1. I think we all unknowingly (and sometimes intentionally) fictionalize our own lives as we ponder long-ago events. Like the eyewitnesses to accidents who without realizing it add material into the gaps (what they didn’t actually see) to make a seemingly full picture, we probably assume this or that happened because it seems to fit. After a while, many of us may be very far away from the actuality of the events. Our fictionalized version becomes our truth, I think. Seeing how that works, it does become a great tool for our storytelling. as well.

  2. That would be a great way to further flesh out a character! I can see it especially for a psychological thriller. And I think it’s going to be fascinating as you write your memoir. Thanks for the insights!

  3. I actually use this as a character’s motivation in my next Agent Night thriller. Why’d you have to go and talk about it? Now everyone will want to do it! 😉

  4. One problem I see here, is how to bring out a character’s memories without repeated use of flash backs. I did this in my most recent novel and some readers have complained about flash backs hindering the flow of the plot.

    1. One way I see is as part of a the natural flow in a conversation. Or in short bursts when a decision needs to be made. I agree that long flashbacks become cumbersome so we need to keep the memories short and as part of the flow, bringing them up when something triggers them.

  5. Great post, Yvonne.
    “Is it important or salient to the story?”
    For me, actual memories are like seasoning – to be used sparingly. However, I often bounce character’s perceptions of reality off each other. It’s a great way of setting up the kind of cumulative misunderstandings that a character driven plot needs. It’s also a great way to shine a brief spotlight on what makes a particular character tick.

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