9. Character’s Past
In many ways people are a product of their past. People create stories from their past, interpreting what happened to fit how they see themselves. People often try to recreate happy memories, and avoid anything reminiscent of unpleasant ones. Past experiences are another way to gradually reveal character. Here are a few methods for revealing a character’s past.
The first and easiest method is implying a character’s past. Knowledge, skills, and physical objects can imply a character’s past. A character could have a degree or medal framed on their wall. They may leave their door unlocked, or walk up to a podium with an air of casual confidence. All of these things suggest different past experiences.
One of the most common ways to imply a past is through expectations and assumptions. People often make assumptions based on past experiences. A person who’s afraid of dogs probably had a bad experience with them.
The second method is a simple remark. A character easily ties a complex knot. Someone asks him where he learned it, and he says “I spent two years on a fishing boat.” This can work as a detail on its own, or it can be part of something more, as the story gradually reveals more and more about the character.
Telling a Story in Dialogue
People often trade stories. It’s a fun way to pass the time. A character could tell a story from their past as part of a conversation. The key is that the character telling the story needs a strong voice, and the story needs to be short. More than 50 or 100 words may feel long-winded, unless the author breaks it up with remarks and/or actions from the other characters.
The last, and most involved method, is the flashback. This is when the story cuts away from the current narrative to tell the memory as its own story. This is a good way to share information with the audience, without sharing it with other characters. For example, in the book Dragon Wing, someone asks Hugh why he was at a certain battle. The audience gets the entire scene, but the other characters only get “I was there on business.”
Flashbacks should start late and end early. Keep them as short as possible. This helps to keep audiences focused on the main story. If, as an author, you find yourself repeatedly going to flashbacks, consider whether “the present” is the story you want to tell.