Overlooked Aspects of Characterization: The Past
Looking back can be a powerful thing

The Clearly Canadian Chronicles

Have you heard of Clearly Canadian? I hadn’t a few weeks ago, but I’ll never forget it now.

I’m a supervisor at one of the only places that carries Clearly Canadian, the sparkling water of the gods! Or so it would seem. When we first put it on the shelves, it was gone in twenty minutes. Then we started filling orders for it, dozens upon dozens of them. I work at the lowest volume store in the district, so God only knows how many orders the other stores were pulling in. We sold thousands of dollars worth of the stuff in just a couple short weeks.

The phone wouldn’t stop ringing with more people calling in to get their share. The company quickly ran out of all of it. So, we wait for more from the vendor, disappointing a hundred more people who weren’t even able to place an order.

What the hell was going on? How can this be so good?

When I finally got to try a little, it was fine. There wasn’t some enlightening moment where I could peel back the layers of time itself and stare at the face of God. My expectations were high, to say the least.

Why would anyone be so obsessed with sparkling water? You have to look at the layer underneath. It isn’t about the sparkling water at all. There’s plenty of other kinds of water and soda that pretty much taste the same. It’s the brand. Not because it’s better, but because it takes people back to when it was first available.

You see, Clearly Canadian hasn’t been around for decades. The people making orders couldn’t stop themselves from telling us story after story about how they used to drink this as a kid. It was about connecting with a time that was long gone.

This got me thinking. Being in retail, I have an endless supply of influence for characterization. Every person that comes through that door has a story, a personality, and when they want to speak to a manager, I take notes! I’ve spoken on character creation before, but through this experience, I found something that is an often overlooked aspect of writing characters.

Viewing the Past

Add a layer of realism to your characters by asking yourself this: How does your character react to the past?

You have a history for your characters, but how do they view it themselves?

The past is a powerful thing, and everyone has their own views and ways of dealing with it. It’s no different for fictional characters. Do they honor it? Do they despair because they will never get it back? Is the past something that empowers your characters, or does it cripple them? Do they care about it at all?

Your character’s reaction to the past can have a huge say in the kind of personality that you are cultivating. We hear it all the time; show don’t tell. As you unravel a character for an audience, the best way to show why they act the way that they do is to dive into their past. We automatically make a connection for the character if we know something traumatic happened to them, or someone they loved inspired them as a child. It becomes something that defines them. And if we see that, your character should as well. They can allow those past events to influence them in whatever way you wish. Just know the audience will see how your characters react, and read into it to see something deeper about them.

I’ve had Cormac McCarthy on the mind lately, so let’s use The Road as an example. A father and his child wander through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of America trying to survive. The father remembers a time it wasn’t like this. Something as simple as finding a Coke brings back a flood of memory, tying him back to when things weren’t life and death. It’s something he desperately wishes he could have back, but also realizes it’s gone forever. His sole mission, to keep his son safe, isn’t just from fatherly love and duty, but is his way of holding on to that past that won’t ever return.

The Road doesn’t directly reference the past all that often. If I recall correctly, there isn’t even much in the way of flashbacks, besides tiny scenes here and there. It doesn’t need to be something we are relentlessly hit over the head with as an audience. We make the connections for the character with what little we do know because we all understand the importance of the past automatically.

Neglecting the Past

There’s another side to that coin. If a character disregards the past completely, we instantly see them as heartless. Getting around that connection is tough. Usually, we wait to see what trauma must have caused their lack of care. It’s an excellent way to bring out a personality trait in a character without giving the audience loads of exposition. Always show don’t tell, remember?

Here’s an example from my job. You tell me how you feel about this “character.”

A woman approached me asking, of course, about Clearly Canadian. It was a couple of weeks after we first got it in, and it was long gone. I could see the utter disappointment on her face, and I have to admit, it was a little heartbreaking. Yes, just for sparkling water.

Then, she told me she used to drink this as a little girl, and it reminds her of her family all being together again. Damn, who knew that something so simple could have that much of an emotional connection?

Defeated, she turned back to her husband and said, “I told you it was super popular.”

He responded, saying, “It’s just fucking sparkling water.” Then he walked away.

How does that make you feel? How do you view him? This was just one sentence in a lifetime of words and emotions. Do you make a judgment on him? I sure do! He totally disregards the importance of the past.

Maybe, he doesn’t realize the connection, or it’s just one moment that he isn’t the most understanding. He could be the most loving husband on the face of the planet, and all I got to see was this one tiny exchange. His complete neglect for her memories speaks powerfully, though. It’s hard to shape something, other than heartlessness, from this one moment. Instant character development.

That’s the power of the past.

Utilize the Past in Character Creation

So, flesh out your character’s history first and foremost. Make a timeline of events that took place in the world you are building. This doesn’t need to be fancy, but keep track of the major events that happened to, and around, your characters. The way they remember them, hold on to them, let go of those memories, or disregard them completely, will speak volumes to their character in a very short amount of time.

Lacking for ideas? Become your own personal psychiatrist. What memories are important to you? Which ones hurt. How do you react? Sometimes it can be painful to bring some memories to the forefront, but it makes your characters that much more real to your audience. Ernest Hemingway did say, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s a shareable meme of a quote, but the reality of it is a little harsher.

We all have a past. So do your characters. Bring that out on the page and let us see how each one of them deals with it.