Defining moments and unfortunate trousers

Lederhosen. Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc

An old mate of mine, we shall call him George, for that is his name, once told me a story about his childhood. His family was a long way from wealthy and foreign holidays were not on the agenda, but his aunt once made a trip abroad to Austria and returned to Glasgow with a gift for George.

He opened his parcel it to find, to his horror, that it contained a pair of lederhosen. To his even greater horror, his mother made him wear them to school the next morning. He had been hoping to get through the day by keeping a low profile but it wasn’t to be as his form teacher dragged him up in front of the class and made him model his outlandish attire.

“Look everyone,” she said. “George is wearing genuine Tyrolean Lederhosen.”

As George stood there, in front of a sniggering pack of ‘wee Glaswegian Teddy Boys,’ dressed in his unfortunate trousers, it was clearly a defining moment in his life. From a moment like that, as the old saying goes, things can only get better. Well, perhaps not exactly from that moment, since things got significantly worse as the day wore on, but years after that, and presumably after some expensive therapy, he found he could look back and laugh at his ordeal.

I’m at the start of writing a new book right now and defining moments in a character’s life are important to me. What motivates them? Where are they coming from? Formative experiences play a big part in that I think.

I often consider what brought my characters to the point where the book finds them – what their back stories are. Sometimes I scribble notes about these imaginary people, to make them more real. The details I write about their biographies might not make it into the finished book. It doesn’t matter, they inform who the person is and how they behave. Have they experienced bereavement in their life? Divorce? Love? When were they most happy? Have they had an experience as embarrassing as my old mate George?

I will also sometimes jot down more general details about them, their taste in music, their education, where they were born and so on.

I believe it’s worth a few notes and a bit of thought early on to get to the bottom of key characters, it makes things easier later on. If can inform the way they act and react.

It’s a curious part of writing a book that sometimes you write material which you know will not appear in print and is not intended for the reader. And yet it will still improve the book and the reading experience by making the characters richer in your imagination and so making them stronger and more rounded on the page.

How about you, do you write back stories for your characters? Who are your favourite literary characters?


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9 thoughts on “Defining moments and unfortunate trousers”

  1. Interesting blog Chris. The more you know your characters the better your readers will know them. Having written several short stories, and with a yen to start a longer story I am keeping my notebook and hope to learn from blogs such as this!

  2. Chris I didn’t do this for my first book but I now draw up character biogs for my main characters. It does help to refer back to those notes as I am writing (book No 2).

  3. Poor George, that must have coloured his view on all sorts of things for years! I do the same thing with characters, Chris. Before I have even started writing about them I give them a life before the book. It helps me with continuity, I think. Great post!

  4. When I wrote my first book, ‘The White Rajah’, it started with the narrator’s back-story. In the end, I edited it out.

    I hadn’t intended it to be a trilogy, but that’s how it worked out. In book 3 (‘Back Home’) he returned to the place he was born. That back-story was the starting point for everything that happened to him in that book. The rejected couple of pages turned out to be absolutely vital to making the whole thing work.

    1. You make a good point – I think words we write about characters are not wasted even if they don’t make it into print. Knowing more about the characters than we say can be really useful to us authors I think.

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