The Roots of the Future Lie in the Past


I’ve been writing in fits and starts recently. This was partly due to distractions (mostly happy Chinese New Year related things!), but the bulk of my problems were caused by the fact that I couldn’t get my story straight.

I’ve written before about how I let my characters drive my story and sometimes take it in unexpected directions. It feels more real to me than forcing the characters to robotically follow the path I’ve outlined for them. However, I’ve come to a point where the character’s next decision will be heavily influenced by experiences in her past—a past I haven’t yet clarified.

Yes, I know vaguely who my protagonist is, where she’s from, and a sketch of the life she lived before the story kicked off, but apparently that’s not enough!

At the center of the story I’m writing lies a deeply flawed relationship between two characters who have been out of contact for a substantial amount of time. What happens when they meet again? What old wounds are re-opened by this encounter? How have the characters’ lives since parting redefined this past? And, as the puppet-master trying to achieve a specific outcome, how to I balance the tensions drawing them together with the forces pushing them apart?

We’re all shaped by our pasts, and in our most complicated relationships, it’s the details that drive our emotional reactions and decisions. But it goes deeper than that, too. It’s not what he said, but the way he said it, and the timing, that was so devastating. It’s the significance we give to these moments that makes them cut so deeply. And, of course, there are two sides to every story.

In real relationships, it’s the casual everyday cruelties that eventually break us, and not the big fights. It’s the little things your partner does that make you feel insignificant and invisible—being careless about the things that matter to you, or forgetting the things you say. Or, it’s that one ugly side of them—a cruel side that comes out when they’re drinking, or an uncontrolled temper—that lets you start to imagine a life without them.

I didn’t flesh out the details of this relationship beforehand because it ends before the story takes place. However, that lack of past has come back to haunt me! Until I know the nuances of their relationship, I won’t know what holds my character back or what she needs to change in order to move forward.

For the first time since beginning my novel, I’m tempted to go back to the beginning and start rewriting. I’ve been avoiding it because I worry my morale will take a hit once I see how much work is left to do, but I also hope that clarifying this key moment in my protagonist’s past will help me give her a more consistent voice throughout the story.

Art Credit: Roots by Phil Shirley under this license


4 thoughts on “The Roots of the Future Lie in the Past

    1. To be honest, every time I’ve put a story away and returned to it, I ended up changing some fundamental parts of the story I want to tell! I think certain ideas speak to me more based on whatever is going on in my life, and that influences what I write. My strategy (and who knows if this will actually work) is to write the stories, characters, and conflicts that speak to me, and even if that means backing away from my original plan I still count it as forward progress. Commit to writing what you love, and the motivation will follow!

      Liked by 1 person

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