Waiting and Ungrateful

“Your mother doesn’t love you,” she said. “You know she only sees you to get back at your father.”

I kept my back to her. I was ten.

“If you were grateful, you’d get back in this house right now.” My step-mother wouldn’t step out from the carport and she had to shout.

I was sitting on my suitcase in the grass under the oak tree. I hoped I looked like an orphan because I wanted the neighbors to see. To hear. Only our neighbors were too far away to ever witness much of anything.

“Don’t you come back in this house and say I didn’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll see. She’s not coming to get you.”

I kept my hands tightly together on my knees and stared at the end of the drive. My mom is to coming to get me, I thought. She wants to see me. But I’d learned the best way to make my step-mother go away was to say nothing. It drove her mad.

“Don’t come in here crying,” she said, and slammed the kitchen door.

I let my shoulders sag and turned to look down the road. My mother had never missed a weekend. She’d never been late or early. Always coming around the curve at 5:30.

the sunset in front of dad's house
the sunset in front of dad's house

The sunset was setting when my step-mother came marching back. “You got a phone call,” she said.

I waited until she was several steps ahead of me before I followed.

“I’ll miss seeing you this weekend,” mom said.

I sat on a barstool, my elbows on the bar, the phone to my ear. My step-mother stood in the doorway and watched. She tried to watch everything.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said. Speaking threatened to make me cry, but I pressed my elbows down hard on the bar. Crying would upset my mom and satisfy my step-mother.

“Are you all doing anything special for Easter?” she said.

Easter. Every other Easter I stayed with dad. I’d thought it was an ordinary weekend.

“You did remember it was Easter, didn’t you?” she said.

I nodded, forgetting she couldn’t see.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I should’ve call yesterday and reminded you. Are you okay?”

“No, Mom. I didn’t forget. I just, you know, don’t care about Easter all that much. That’s all,” I said. “Do you have plans?”

“Something’s wrong,” she said. “Can you tell me?”

“Everything’s fine,” I said. “But I’ve got to go. Dinner’s almost ready.”

I heard my step-mother walk back to the kitchen and smack a pot on the counter. She’d probably let me eat, but she’d make me pay.

“Should I come get you?” my mother asked.

“No. I know what weekend it is.” I try to laugh. “It’s fine. I’ll see you next Friday, okay?” I could tell that mom was deciding whether or not to believe me. Possibly she was debating whether or not believing me was okay. She was the only adult who knew when I was lying.

My step-sister,N., came into the room and rolled her eyes when she saw me. “You’re so stupid,” N. said.

“Mom, I’ve got to go. My dinner’s getting cold.”

Mom promised to call me on Sunday. “I love you,” she said.

“Love you, too,” I said, avoiding my step-sister’s stare, and I hung up the phone.

Every character has a backstory. Some writers develop entire histories for characters to explain their motivations, their desires, and their favorite colors. I’ve heard some writers say they know what their character ate for breakfast. Other writers don’t care about all that past. They zip their character along and find explanations along the way.

When I try to write a history for a character, I find myself longing to write the actual story. I give up on notes and timelines and run. When I need to know why someone is making a particular choice, especially a choice they she shouldn’t make, I think about why. I may add it to the story or I may not. This method becomes apparent when people read what I’ve written. “What the hell is character thinking?” readers have asked.

What the hell am I thinking, I wonder. How much of the past is necessary to make a character believable? What slices from her history will explain who she is? How much backstory do you need to know what is coming?

9 thoughts on “Waiting and Ungrateful

  1. I used to interview my main characters. Once I had a rough idea of the pending storyline, we’d sit down over a cup and talk about their lives and how they happened to stumble into the Grand Adventure (GA) that was about to unfold. This created or added depth to their characters, and sometimes created new characters, new subplots and, more than once, significant changes to the GA. I tried my best to make it real; towards the end, I even let them decide when the interview was over (“I’ve gotta go. I need to [some plot-related activity here]”.) I always came away with enough to get started, enough to make the character live for me.

    Once I’d finished the interviews, the writing would start. When I got stuck with a character – when I wasn’t sure how she would react to an upcoming bit of ugliness – I would go back to the interview file. Sometimes the answer was there. Sometimes I re-opened the conversation for as long as it took to find my answer, then saved the changes. (Warning: here there be dragons [major changes to a work in progress].)

    All in all, it helped. I got a feel for their backstories, for their motivations and for their personalities, all in fifteen or twenty minutes of pleasant insanity. (Talk about your invisible friends . . . “Hold on five more minutes, dear; I’m doing an interview.”)

    I didn’t do this last NaNo. I had pretty much given up on writing, and when I belatedly crammed myself into the novel-in-a-month Iron Maiden, I forgot. More’s the pity.

  2. My heart is breaking for that 10-year-old.

    I haven’t done much backstory for my characters, but sometimes I wonder if I should.

    Beautiful photo by the way.

  3. I tend to write about three or four times more than I need for the story. I think that is how I learn the characters. I let them go on adventures, even if they don’t fit the story. I tell scenes that don’t show up in the novel. I also have done the snowflake method of outlining, which I think is great because it goes back and forth between plot and character. I’ve never done the whole thing, but I stop when I feel I know them well enough and can’t wait to get started. I have in the past done the interview thing, and that has always been surprising and enlightening, but I often forget to do it.

    How much do I have to know my character’s backstory? Just a little, I think, and the rest of it develops as the story is written. Sometimes I don’t need to know what happened to them beforehand, they do something in the story and I think, “ah, they had THIS happen when they were younger!”

  4. I think you ought to write a post titled, “My Step-Mother Is a Complete Bitch”, if for no other concrete reason than this sentence: “Your mother doesn’t love you,” she said. “You know she only sees you to get back at your father.”

    I think your dialogue in this post provides sufficient background; even if I did not know your personal journey, I would still understand the exact space in which you did. Great example of Less is More.

    I Love the idea of interviews. I’ve never heard that before. I don’t write too much fiction, mostly creative nonfiction, but I can see how this technique could be useful both in fleshing out the characters’ stories, and in convincing other to leave you alone because you are obviously completely insane. =)

  5. Another great story, and conversation about it. “Why do these people keep coming back to my blog?” the writer asks, forgetting she’s actually speaking aloud. The people sitting around the room look at one another, raise their eyebrows, shrug, their expressions saying She really doesn’t know, does she?

    Drawing the line between writing too much backstory and writing just enough is really honest-to-God hard for me. Sometimes I think I wander off into backstory just to avoid dealing with stuff in the story’s present time, because it’s too painful a scene or too hard to write about for some other reason. Or because I don’t really know what’s happening next, although I know what’s happening after whatever-is-next itself happens (if that makes sense). Anything’s better than just staring at the screen for 20 or 30 precious minutes, and switching over to backstory sometimes jogs things loose that I hadn’t expected, and/or in unexpected ways. Sort of Oh — so THAT’S why he does that…! But overindulgence always beckons.

  6. Tom, I love the interview idea. If that is how you write, then that’s the way to go. I just tend to be more–tell-me-your-story-and-I’ll-figure-out-the-rest sort of writer. Please do NaNo with us this year!

    Shelli, from what I’ve read of your novel, you know the characters’ backstory even if it isn’t on the page.

    rowena, that’s how I go about it too.

    Sophie, usually I tell people that my step-mother was amazingly insecure.

    JES, I never know.

  7. Pingback: It was just like a movie! « writing in the water

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