First Memories: Developing In-depth Characters

What is your first memory?

I have a faint one of my mother grasping at me, reaching across my sister, in the front seat of the car.  In those days before car seat laws, I sat in the passenger seat wondering if the car door would open when the car is in motion.  It did.  My mother was turning left at a traffic light at the time.

I have other memories from the next year or two, but they are hazy:
  • Falling in the local grocery store after pitching a fit for Cracker Jacks® 
  • Watching Mom in the kitchen before my fourth birthday party
  • Riding a chair lift with my Dad who was scared of heights

All of these memories center around my parents.  Why?  Because my parents played a huge part in my formative years.

When we develop characters for our books, those early memories might be significant. Our first years shape and form us. Knowing something about your characters' childhood adds a richness and depth to the context of the story.

In one my novels (yet to be published), the protagonist receives a significant item of her mother's, a pin. In the scene she recalls her childhood memories of the pin:

Speechless, she reached out and took it.  When Adana was a child, her mother used to let her hold the pin.  She would tilt it in the sunlight and cast reflections on the walls of her mother’s chambers.  It felt cool and smooth to the touch.  The last time she saw her mother wear it was just days before she fell ill.  Tears came unbidden to her eyes, and she tried to wipe them away.

Is this memory significant to the overall plot?  Yes, because it reminds the reader of the relationship Adana lost when her mother died. At the same time, it introduces a symbol of the power she will inherit. Without this memory, we lose a poignant depth to the scene.

What do you know about your characters' childhood?  The formative years have a great impact on a person's behavior throughout their lives.  A scarred childhood can lead to a scarred person or someone determined to overcome their past.  A spoiled childhood can lead your character to suffer painful surprises when she is no longer the center of attention. Exploring these parts of their lives creates a more in-depth character, someone your readers can relate to.


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