Summoning the Ghosts
Every character walks onto the page carrying the baggage of a lifetime. He or she comes with a personal history – parents, children, siblings, exes, partners, mentors and tormentors – not to mention education and work experiences. These relationships and experiences meld in a host of memories, unresolved conflicts, festering wounds, and unfulfilled desires. Together, they make up a unique personality. The past may not play a substantive part in the story you’re telling, but it casts a perceptible shadow over the present. All characters are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by what happened to them before they are introduced to the reader. In real life, people can do things for no reason at all. But in fiction, a writer is obliged to supply the character a plausible motive for his actions. In my own novels, I’ve found that oftentimes that motivation arises out of my character’s backstory. To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past is never really past.
While a compelling backstory enriches the characterization and lends depth and believability, it isn’t always easy to establish. If you’re writing a series, it becomes increasingly difficult to repeat the character’s history over and over again. I call this challenge of telling the backstory “summoning the ghosts.” You don’t want the ghosts to take over the plot. Their purpose is to do a bit of haunting, inform the reader why your character thinks and behaves the way he does, and promptly fade back into the ectoplasm. Interrupting the action to insert long explanations will only bore your readers, and if some present action is triggered by a character’s past, it’s best that the reader be aware of that past before the critical moment when the action takes place. Backstory can be woven into a scene through the character’s internal thoughts, reminiscences, emotional reactions, dialogue, and occasionally through flashbacks. But sometimes, as happens in real life, a character can’t move on with her life until the ghosts of the past have been banished.
In my fifth Dinah Pelerin mystery, Where the Bones Are Buried, Dinah is living happily with her lover in Berlin, Germany when two characters from out of her past show up and threaten to disclose secrets that will turn her life upside down, possibly even send her to prison. By summoning these particular ghosts, I had to confront the fact that unavoidably, I would be revealing part of the mystery of the first novel. But these ghosts had been rattling their chains through four books. It was time for an exorcism. Character and the complexities of human relationships have always mattered more to me than plot and I decided that, if Dinah were going to have a future, she had to sort out her feelings about the past once and for all – the lingering blame and distrust of others, as well as her own guilt.
In writing Where the Bones Are Buried, I realized that in some ways I had been in denial as much as Dinah. I had created her backstory, but shied away from its psychological implications. I had been too cautious about holding the ghosts at bay. By delving more deeply into Dinah’s past and giving her the opportunity – the choice – to exorcise her ghosts or carry them around with her forever, she became infinitely more real to me. No one can forget the past completely, but I know I’ll have a much easier time feathering in the backstory in my next Dinah novel.
Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism and has worked as a copywriter, a high school English and Drama teacher, and a paralegal. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor.