When I write a story, it’s often a tiny snapshot of a person’s life. There are many things that may never be mentioned. How she was raised, or what he did when he grew up. Where he was born. How she died.
And when the person is a fictional character, it may seem that those things don’t matter. The backstory of the sour man who owns the general store Clara works at may seem irrelevant.
But it’s not. Whether it matters in the story or not, a person’s history is a part of them. What happened to Clara’s boss is important, and even more important is the way he reacted to the things that happened to him. How a person reacts to the uncontrollable things of life shapes who they are.
I can say the man is sour. I can say he’s a pessimist. I can say that no matter what happens, he sees the worst in everything. But just that snapshot of him as a character does not make him a person. (It makes him “Clara’s horrible boss.”)
He becomes a person when I give him a history.
He was the only son of Russian immigrants. He was born into poverty and famine. All of his early memories were of working alongside his parents, trying to make a living off that overworked farm from dawn ’til dusk. When he was ten, his family took a ship to America, the land of golden streets. The passage was long, cold and dark and on the ship, his mother died. When they got to America, the boy and his father waited at Ellis Island for two months, stuck within sight of the Statue of Liberty with her upraised torch and her promising inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor…”
America, when they finally reached it, was not a land of golden streets and endless fertile land. In the bustling, dirty city, they still struggled to survive. And through school and through getting a job at a store, through moving west and even through starting his own business, he carried the habit he had taught himself in those first hard years of his life. The world is a hard place, and bad things happen. Expecting the worst, first adopted as a defense against disappointment, became his defining characteristic. And although his store in the great West of America was successful and his family was comfortable, he never chose to change the way he had always thought. His wife was discontent, his children hated him. And the joy he had forgotten he ever wanted never came.
It’s not the early loss of his mother and the destitute childhood that make this man’s story a sad one. It’s the fact that although an honest and hardworking man, he will never be happy. Because no matter how good life is, he has trained himself to not see the happiness in life.
Character’s histories are important. It makes them people, men and women who were born somewhere and grew up somehow. But it is not the circumstances of their history that defines who they are. It is the way they choose to respond to those circumstances.
Each man or woman, adult and child, makes that choice hundreds of times. Those choices build a person.
A person with a story.