characters have childhoods, too.

When I was five years old, I was held hostage for the price of a meal.

It was a Sunday morning and my mom was sleeping in, so my dad took me out for breakfast.  We went to  a restaurant a few blocks from the apartment where we were living, a dining spot we’d never been to before.  I was thrilled to spend time with my dad, who worked two jobs and rarely had time for a leisurely breakfast, and I dressed up in my favorite red bonnet and a plaid skirt.  We sat in a booth and ate pancakes and it was a perfect morning.

Until my dad opened his wallet to pay the bill, and realized he had only two dollars. 

Back then credit cards were still rare and he hadn’t brought his checkbook, but none of this mattered to the waitress or the manager.  All they knew was that these customers had just eaten breakfast in their establishment and we weren’t going to pay for it. My frantic dad told them he’d come right back with the cash, if they’d just let us leave for a few minutes.  No dice.  They wanted the bill paid, or they were going to call the police.  I don’t remember how the negotiations went, or how they came to the solution they agreed upon.  All I know is that I was told to stay behind in the booth as a guarantee that my dad would return.  Only then would they let him run out for the money.  As hostage experiences go, it wasn’t unpleasant.  I think the waitress might have brought me hot chocolate.  What I do remember was the look of utter humiliation and panic in my dad’s face when he came running back in with the cash.

As we walked home together, he said to me, “The worst feeling in the world is having no money in your wallet.”  

I have never forgotten his words, or the shame with which he said it.  And to this day, I feel anxious if I don’t have at least twenty dollars in my wallet.  Even if I have credit cards and a checkbook with me, I still need those twenty dollars on me.  It’s gotten to be a joke in our household.  Whenever my husband and I leave the house, I always ask him, “how much cash do you have?”  He knows it’s just one of my little neurotic tics.  He also knows exactly where it comes from.  When you’ve been held hostage for the price of pancakes, you make damn sure you’re never again caught with an empty wallet.

I mention this story because I’ve been thinking lately about how childhood traumas — even minor ones like mine — always stay with us. Thriller writer David Morrell once told me that he thought writers invariably focus on themes from their childhoods, and we work out our childhood issues in our stories.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that theory.  I grew up as the only Asian kid in my elementary school, so my childhood struggle was trying to fit in with the crowd, and knowing that I never could.  I realized that many of my characters are working out that very issue: Jane Rizzoli, trying to fit in as a woman in a man’s profession.  Maura Isles, trying to be accepted by cops who are a little afraid of her.  All the plain, awkward, unsophisticated heroines that populate my novels are longing for the same thing I did: acceptance.  (And they hate having empty wallets, too.)    

When I write, I find that I often include a character’s childhood memories in the story, because childhood incidents are such powerful influences on personality.  They tell us what a character fears and longs for, why a character reacts the way she does to an insult, or why she doesn’t believe it when a man tells her he loves her.  And sometimes those incidents come right from my own life.

In writing about Jane Rizzoli, I once had her remember the time her father lost his job and the family had to live on Potato Buds and canned corn.  (A memory from my own childhood.)  In another of my novels, my heroine’s dad lost his job but was too proud to reveal that shameful truth to his neighbors, so he got dressed every morning in his usual suit and tie and drove off as if he were going to work.  (Again, a memory from my childhood.)  

Even if the incidents aren’t from your own life, a character’s childhood memories give us powerful insight into character.  In The Apprentice, Jane thinks back to her days in the school band, where she was one of only two girls who played the trumpet. She was so bad at it that her parents banished her outside to practice.  The fact she chose a trumpet was part of what defines Jane Rizzoli.  No demure flute or oboe for her; she’s never been afraid to make noise or to irritate people, so she would choose the trumpet.   

Or the time little Jane fell and split her chin on the coffee table.  Any other kid would scream in distress, but what did Jane do?  She kicked and slapped the table because she was angry it had hurt her.  She refused to be a victim; instead, she was fighting back.  

Sometimes, when I’m creating a new character and I don’t yet have a good handle on him, I’ll use one of his childhood memories to help me define him.  All it takes is a remembered incident or two, and suddenly I understand why he’s so terrified of poverty, why goats make him nervous, or why he can’t stop arguing with his brothers.  It makes him more real for me. Because I believe that once you know the child, you’ll know the adult he becomes.

21 thoughts on “characters have childhoods, too.

  1. Christa Polkinhorn

    Interesting article and how true! Sometimes, I involve my characters in incidents or give them feelings without being conscious that it has something to do with my own childhood. The "aha"-moment sometimes comes much later when I am far into the novel or even after having finished it.
    Author of Love of a Stonemason

  2. Dao

    This is a lovely article. Having childhood memories add depth to characters. I'm always amazed how a little bit of back story can change everything. It adds to the motivation of the characters and sometimes, it is a redeeming factor.

    Like you, I always have some cash in me just in case some mom-and-pop shop doesn't take credit card. Also, when I travel, I bring cash with me. The fear of not being able to use plastic is there. After hearing so many stories of identity thief, cash is a better solution when I'm on the road.

  3. Debbie

    Tess, that was fascinating. In both my MS's there are childhhod memories. The odd part to me was that the second is a sequel so it surprised me when the characters felt it necessary to discuss their past. They are also sisters but the discussion not only added dimension to the main character, it revealed things to her that she didn't remember about her own past until it was recounted to her by another's perspective. The weirdest part…they revealed things to me that left me realizing how messed up her childhood really had been. Things even I didn't know when writing the first book

    My husband and I have known each other eighteen years and he and I still tell each other new stories, same with my friends whom I've known nearly thirty, so I guess that's a reality of relationships. It makes sense when you think about it though. Our past influenced us, why wouldn't a characters? Why wouldn't they remember it, share it? I've done lots of research and never heard anybody cover this. Thanks.

  4. pari noskin taichert

    I loved this post, Tess. Thank you for the reminder. I know I deal with childhood memories in my books, but right now I'm writing about teens or children so many of those memories are being created in my works.

    But it'd be really interesting to grow one or two of them up and see the people they become . . .

  5. Chris

    This is so true. I can't tell you how many times my husband has asked me over the course of our 30 years together "why do you do that?". If I really stop to think about it, nine times out of ten it has something to do with my childhood, and shifting into self survival mode.

    I grew up at a time when divorce was very uncommon (especially in my town where EVERYTHING, people,school, churches, etc, were all Catholic. There was only one lonely Baptist Church on the outskirts of town 😉 My mother had the courage to leave my horrid father and she and I became a team. The things she taught me have stayed with me my entire life…..some things good and useful, others a bit paranoid, but they have all formed who I am today. So, when hubby asks "why"….I tell him it is my mom Bernie's fault 🙂

    Now, quit reading comments and get back to writing. My Kindle feels naked without one of your stories on pause, waiting for the next time I need to spend — forever– in my car waiting for a kid to finish practice. 🙂

  6. Allison Brennan

    I really have to think about whether my very boring, very typical childhood finds its way into my stories. Well, sort of typical I guess–it was just me and my mom because my father told her to have an abortion, then he left the country so he wouldn't have to pay child support for me or my half-sister (his daughter from his marriage.) So my mom, unmarried and against most odds, had me and raised me on her own (with the support of her parents) and I suppose that's why all my heroines are independent, sometimes to a fault. But truly, I had an incredible role model in my mom so I want readers to look at my heroines, warts and all, as role models. And because I was raised to believe that I could do anything if I worked hard enough and wanted it badly enough, my heroines tend to work toward their childhood dreams, even against the odds.

    I do incorporate little things. I like Guinness (so do many of my heroines); in my first book, my heroine took her bra off in the same way I do. I lived with my grandmother for many years and she was raised in the depression; I still have a hard time not clearing my plate (which contributes to my weight) and my heroines have felt guilty when they leave food uneaten. And my heroines often hesitate before making emphatic statements because I never wanted to feel stupid, so I avoided saying things unless I was 100% certain.

  7. Debbie

    After I hit send and reread the posts back to back, I realized that this could be misinterpreted. So sorry. (It's supposed to refer to being 100% certain, and not about feeling stupid…which btw, I now do! Tee hee.

  8. Allison Brennan

    LOL Debbie, I was confused, but in a "I don't want to appear stupid so I'm not going to ask what she meant" way. Sort of when everyone laughs at a joke so you laugh, too, even though you don't get it. (Yes, I've done that.)

  9. JT Ellison

    I love this – and I've spent all day thinking about what parts of my (terribly) normal childhood I've given to Taylor – and now, Sam. There are a bunch of little things, playing the clarinet, the broken nose (though not the method for getting it – I broke mine twice) braces, sneaking smokes, then of course the whole debutante thing. I've always said that she and I share biographical details, but I see that it's really more. Sam shares my feelings of inadequacy, of not fitting in, of always being an outsider. So Taylor's the physical and Sam's the emotional. Fascinating.

  10. Debbie

    Yeah I've done that too (laughed when I didn't get something); I was always called on it and then it just highlighted my stupidity. I don't do that if I think it might be at my expense. I play the humour card and ask, "would that be a shot?" If it wasn't ment that way, there's usually an apology and explination and if it was, it comes across as comically sarcastic (like I got it, which chances are, I didn't)! Depending on the company, and how light-hearted the comment is, I sometimes say, "Hey, I resemble that remark!" but only if I'm sure it was directed at me. (Still timid and don't want to come across as arrogant. (I either want to be accepted or fly under the radar.)
    And yes, this stems from some pretty nasty situations where as an adult I overheard discussions about me but was too timid to say anything.

  11. Tess Gerritsen

    So fascinating how many childhood stories we all have that would make such interesting backgrounds for our characters. Allison, my gosh, what an incredible story about your mom! Every one of us has stories, both traumatic or just small and funny or just intimate and interesting that informs our characters and our books. Sometimes we just need to reach deep into our memories and pull them out and let them show up on the page.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brilliant, Tess, brilliant. You've given me another wonderful tool to work with. I'm defining a new protagonist as we speak, and I think this is going to do the trick.

  13. KDJames

    At last, a safe haven. This might be the only place in the entire internetz that is not reporting election results. Can I just sit quietly in the corner for a while?

    I had such an unremarkable non-traumatic childhood, it's almost embarrassing. Pretty sure I daydreamed through most of it. Good thing I have a wild imagination with with to torture my characters.

    I'm the same way about needing to carry cash, though I can't point to anything as interesting as kidnapping as the cause. A few years ago, as my daughter was leaving to spend an entire college semester studying abroad in Argentina, on the way out the door to the airport I asked her how much cash she had. She shrugged and said, "I don't know, six bucks maybe?" I about had a heart attack. "Six bucks? You can't go to Argentina with six bucks!" I guess all my traumatic experiences were just delayed until adulthood.

  14. kagey

    Great post! This really has me thinking.
    Just last week, on my WIP, I just had the revelation that something the heroine witnessed as a child that she interpreted one way actually had a different outcome, that she only discovers as an adult. Changed my whole direction for the plot (which was great because I was stuck).

  15. Jake Nantz

    I know I'm late to the party, but I just had to say thank you. I can tell my students different tips for fleshing out characters all day and night, but this is such a clear, concise (and smack-yourself-on-the-forehead-for-not-thinking-of-it-it's-so-damned-obvious) kind of thing that it made my head spin. Awesome stuff, Tess. Truly brilliant. Thank you.

  16. annej

    I also hate leaving the house without at least a certain amount of money in my pocket, even if I'm just about to jog around the block or something. Jane's childhood memories are one of my favorite bits in your books. They do make Jane more understandable and there's a better grasp to her character that way. Hope you do the same for Maura in the next books! 🙂

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