You think for a minute. Do you want to go hiking? You have no feeling about it, one way or the other. Absolutely nothing comes to mind to help you decide, so you just blink at her in uncomfortable silence. She wonders whether you’re on drugs, and the next day at work no one will look you in the eye.
Could that scenario happen? Of course not. Unless you are on drugs. Or, in classic movie style, have just been conked on the head and are suffering from amnesia.
Instead, what would happen is that your cognitive unconscious would instantly rip through relevant memories of the past and thoughts of the future as you make your decision . . .
“. . . There was that time you went hiking with your Girl Scout troop when you were nine. You rounded a bend, saw a sheer cliff, panicked, sat with a thud and inched back down the trail on your tush, whimpering. It was a mortifying way to find out you’re terrified of heights and since then you haven’t climbed so much as a stepstool.
But the last six times your friend asked you to do something you blew her off, and she might suspect that you don’t like her.
Besides, you don’t want her to think you’re a coward, or worse, not fit enough to head into the hills. She’s been so gung-ho since she got into shape that she’s been a little smug. But sheesh, it’s not like she did it to make you feel pudgy. Even though it does kinda feel personal. Maybe blowing her off is a good idea.
Then again, there’s that new cute guy in the office who seems to be single, so a little toning might be a good idea. And who knows, you even might get into better shape than your smug friend, and that would sure show her….“
Some of these thoughts would be conscious, some would not, and you’d process ‘em all so fast that your friend wouldn’t even have time to register your hesitation before you said, Sure! I’d love to go hiking!
The point: We evaluate every decision through the lens of everything that’s happened to us up to that moment. Whether or not we consciously ponder each memory, our prior experience is always at work just below the surface, shaping our worldview and driving our action.
As Faulkner so famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fact. It’s how our brain processes information. We make every decision based on how experience has taught us to decode the present.
You know who needs to do the exact same thing? Your protagonist.
To be very clear: I am not saying that your protagonist always needs to amble down a long memory train before arriving at every decision, but that said decision is always driven by what prior experience has taught her. Which is precisely why you need to know what that experience is.
And yet I can’t tell you how often, when I’ve asked a writer, “Um, why did your protagonist make that decision?” there’s a long pause, followed by a sheepish, “I, I, don’t know. I never thought about it.”
I’m not just talking about mundane things like going hiking on a Saturday, but massive, life-altering decisions: like why she moved to Antarctica, why she married her husband, or why she decided to become a doctor, a journalist, an assassin.
Sometimes the writer had vague, conceptual answers. She needed a change. She was attracted to him. She wants to help people. She’s more comfortable observing than participating. She’s a misanthrope.
The problem is, the writer drew these conclusions for the protagonist based on . . . nothing. At best, he had little more than a very general overview of what had actually happened to his protagonist before the story begins. So when pressed, he couldn’t come up with a single specific detail, a single image, a single event.
Try it out on your own life: you’re a writer. If someone asked you why you write, you could probably come up with the moment you realized that you wanted to be a writer. You could talk about what led up to it and what happened from then on — how it changed your life, the things you had to give up to pursue it, the things that it brought you, the lessons you learned, the way people treated you when you told them you wanted to be a writer, how it made you feel, and a million other things. All of those things affected your worldview, and probably your reaction to what you’re reading right now.
Now imagine you’re a character in a story. You try to think about your past and you can’t recall a single incident. Feeling panicked, you close your eyes and look back over your entire life and see . . . nothing, nada, tabula rasa. How would you know what to do? And, as important, why you’re doing it? You wouldn’t. Amnesia is paralyzing.
That’s why when you’re writing a story, you need to know the specifics of your protagonist’s past before you can chart their future.
Here are three helpful ways to tackle just that:
1. Remember a story is about something that is changing — and you can’t have an “after” without a “before.” So the question to ask yourself is, What is my protagonist changing from.
Not conceptually, but specifically. What old beliefs are holding him back? Where did those beliefs spring from? What happened that caused them? If you feel yourself slipping into the general – ala, his parents were always mean to him, and so he grew up to resent authority – make it specific, concrete and clear. The question is: what, exactly, did his parents do that was mean? How did he react? How did that shift how he saw the world, and himself? What did he do as a result?
To be sure you’re nailing the specific, use the Eyes-Wide-Shut Test: When you close your eyes can you actually see it? If not, it’s still too general.
This is crucial, because all story – like all life – is in the specifics. Think of the specific “before” as the yardstick by which your protagonist’s progress toward “after” will be measured. Nailing it allows you to experience that change through your protagonist’s eyes as you write. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’re shoving him onto the page with amnesia.
2. Don’t worry about the things in your protagonist’s past that don’t impact the story.
All those checklists where you’re supposed to know your protagonist’s favorite color, whether they like their middle name, and if they’re a dog person or a cat person? They’re useless, because you end up with so much random, irrelevant information that one of two things tends to happen: Either you drown in TMI, which can be as debilitating as knowing nothing. Or you end up giving the reader TMI, and the story itself drowns.
The good news is that you don’t have to dig into every single thing that ever happened to your protagonist, counting past lives and womb-time. If a story is about a problem, then what you’re looking for are the specific past events – along with the consequences they wrought, the beliefs they engendered — that will come into play as your protagonist navigates the story question.
3. Make sure you force your protagonist to dig deep and admit all the things she’d really rather not.
In the fictional scenario we started with, the protagonist remembered a childhood hike that ended with a teary, terrified, and embarrassingly ignoble descent down a steep mountainside. We’ve all been in dozens of situations like that – humbling, humiliating, frightening. They often become our most closely held secrets. They’re not something we like to talk about, let alone ponder. Why? Because they’re painful, and tend to make us feel lesser-than. When, ironically, they’re what make us gloriously, courageously human. Which is one of the main reasons we turn to story: for the reassurance that we’re not the only one who’s made a spectacular fool of ourselves. And that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t such a big fool after all. Maybe the story will reveal that there’s another way of looking at it – a better, truer way. And maybe there’s something we can learn from it, even now.
So whereas in real life people tend to studiously avoid examining those moments, writers have to dig into them with gusto – even though it hurts like hell. Writing is hard, and this is why. We have to probe our characters’ original wounds, which probably means poking around in our own original wounds — no amnesia allowed. Flaws? Expose them! Fears? Unearth them! Secret desires? Ferret them out!
Will you dig up things that’ll make your protagonist wish she had amnesia? If you do your job right, absolutely! But at the end of the day, your protagonist – and your reader – with thank you for it.
Photo by Paurian via Flickr