Deep Background

The list of questions we had to answer for the characters we played in high school drama ran to three closely-typed pages. The worksheet was a copy of a copy of a copy, its print gravelly and blurred. We were to complete it with details about the characters we portrayed–their early childhood, their favorite foods, their most vivid memories–even if those characters had no more than a couple of minutes of stage time. The late Jean Adams, drama teacher at my high school, taught us that genuine reaction comes out of the patterns of one’s thoughts and behaviors. The audience would never see the worksheet, but the acting would be better: not just a series of spoken lines, but the culmination of a life to that moment.

When I entered college I planned to be a speech and drama teacher. That eventually changed, but not before I took Acting I. We read Stanislavsky and Boleslavsky, wrote about method, added the word “liminality” to my vocabulary, and thought long and hard about emotion memory. As it turns out, I’m a rather bad actor, but the lessons of character building stuck.

In fiction writing, I like to throw at a character a situation in which he or she must act out of character to resolve a problem, and then must also resolve the cognitive dissonance he or she creates in the process. Both main characters in This Chain Passed Down, for instance, are thrust into a situation in which they break their normal patterns of thought and behavior. Ana Domingues is driven to break into a client’s house because she’s desperate for information. That behavior is new territory for her, and when she tries it and is caught, the story begins. For his part, Andrew Hayes had taken on a character that wasn’t really him; his interactions with Ana break those patterns of thought and restore him to his “real” self.

I haven’t put much of Ana’s back story into the novel, but that doesn’t mean she has none. Rather, her silence about herself is part of her patterns of thought and behavior. She’s guarded about her past, which is consistent with someone who doesn’t know who she can trust.  But she lets some things slip throughout the story: we meet some of her old friends, and she makes oblique references to uncomfortable relationships with family. The back story is there, but it’s hidden.

And with that, I leave for work–a different kind of writing, a different kind of character building. Thanks for reading.


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