The past week I’ve been easing back into the mysterious and foggy world of the novel I will be submitting later this year, re-examining the main characters to make sure their actions are true to their personalities.
I found a great exercise in a recent issue of The Writer that I’m using for this re-examination. It’s intensive, requiring of each character 20 desires and 20 resulting fears (a character who wants love fears rejection; a character who wants recognition fears failure). And that’s just step one. After that, you choose 10 pairs of desires and fears and, for each one, write about a seminal moment in the character’s life—the moment when that desire was achieved, or that fear was realized.
These are characters I’ve known for two years or so, and I figured I knew everything about them. But I also hate cheating, so I decided to do the full exercise anyway. I was surprised to discover there were things I did know about the characters, but hadn’t realized I knew.
My villain has a perfectly logical motivation that I never consciously thought of before, one that ties together some of the loose ends I left flapping on my last revision. My hero has a stubborn, angry streak that has been flowing beneath the surface all this time; but only after completing this exercise did I realize that his anger doesn’t actually hide itself (although it does in my current draft). It bursts out, and that’s one of his problems.
All these things I knew, but didn’t know I knew. The answers to some of the prickliest issues in my novel were inside my head all the time, but evidently I hadn’t tried looking for them there.
It reminds me of a past-life regression I underwent once. (Stick with me!)
I met a past-life therapist while writing a feature about the Orange County Society for Psychic Research, a lovely group that uses their psychic abilities and a bunch of scientific equipment to help people (at no charge, yet) who fear their homes or places of business may have otherworldly guests.
Once I’d met Dawn, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the fabulous past lives of which I was ignorant. Who knew what sort of amazing lives I’d led? And who knew how knowledge of those lives could impact this one? So I made an appointment for a regression.
Dawn doesn’t hypnotize her clients; she leads them into a relaxed state via a series of suggestions. I was relaxed, sure, but also very aware of my surroundings and myself. And very, very aware of thinking very hard. Too hard. I was quite, quite sure I was manufacturing everything I said, as though I were afraid of disappointing her. (I hate cheating, but am a surprisingly proficient liar.)
We explored a couple of lives, none of them Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. (Apparently I don’t just stem from hearty peasant stock this time around.) Our first stop was dreary and depressing, a sort of Jane Eyre gone wrong. I was very glad to leave it behind and move on to the next life, which—even as I described it—struck me as incongruously hilarious.
In this life, I saw myself striding through waist-high brush in some sweltering savannah. Spear poised, I hunted a boar.
And I found it—or, rather, it found me.
Tearing around a nearby tree, the boar gouged me in the abdomen with its tusk. My reaction was swift: “Aw, damn.”
There I lay bleeding until discovered by my son and wife (did I forget to mention I was a guy that time around?). Weeping, they crouched over me. I felt worse for them than I did for myself. Although I did feel pretty stupid for getting a mortal wound in such a silly way. I mean, who’s going to immortalize Death by Boar in a legend or traditional chant?
I dug around for a while, trying to find another past life—“You don't always come back as a person, you know. Do you see yourself as a tree?” Dawn suggested—but no dice. I was all regressed out.
I did learn some things about myself that day (more from the bitter anti-Jane life than from the boar-hunting life, which basically taught me to avoid animals with pointy ends). The best thing I learned was not from my regressions, though. It was from something Dawn said afterward.
“Whatever you think about past lives,” she said, “isn’t it amazing to think these stories were inside your brain—and that they can help you with issues you’re dealing with now?”
So as I freewrite about my characters, I think about the stories that are already inside my head, stories I merely have to chase down and allow to benefit the novel. I just hope there won’t be any tusks to discover in these fictional people's pasts. I’m not sure I could bear to re-live the trauma. Again.