When I was seven, I was tasked with bringing my friend to the basement of our apartment building (overseas base housing in Germany often had odd things like basements and attic maids’ quarters) for a surprise birthday party. Terrified that I was going to somehow mess up and bring her in before everyone was ready, I left her on the stairs and went to check. So, of course everyone yelled surprise, my friend heard it, surprise blown.
I messed up by trying not to.
I’ll bet if you ask my dad he probably doesn’t even remember the incident. It looms much larger in my own mind, though. In fact, I still feel like a screw-up when I think about it. I cringe and go right back to being seven again. The ache of regret and shame rises up as if it were yesterday instead of decades ago.
Though small and seemingly unimportant, these are events that invoke strong feelings, and emotional moments are our most memorable.
Like a golfball hit repeatedly by a club, it’s the dings and cuts of life that make us unique.
Which got me thinking about my characters. In addition to the standard background information, I always have one or two defining incidents in my characters’ back stories that help define who they are and their motivations. Usually, though, the events are major or long-lasting. Death of an important person, a violent attack, life with an alcoholic, being trapped in a fire.
(I could choose good things, but where’s the fun in that?)
What if I picked a few smaller life moments for my characters and fleshed them out? Maybe I don’t even have to share them with the reader. But those moments can still inform the character’s self-esteem, fears, quirks, and motivations.
Or, an event in the current story might trigger a memory of one of those minor incidents, causing an unexpected reaction.
Now the real challenge is figuring out what the small moments should be and how to use them.
I hope I don’t blow it.