How memory can figure in your story

It’s well-known that our senses are strongly linked to memory recall. Whether it is particular tastes, pieces of music or certain sounds, the touch of something familiar, or a smell.

For me, there are certain bands or albums that seem to define eras in my life and to bring back strong memories of who I was at the time; the mood of the time, the hopes and desires, the sense of self, whether it was an optimistic time or a pessimistic one, the people I knew. It depends on the music as to how I feel and what I remember.

Those memories are good material for building characters in my stories and working out their relationships with each other. I can use my own experiences to think about how they grew up, their relationships with significant others, their peer group, the social climate of the time. These are the building blocks of the people we become.

Imagine who you would be if you reversed everything good about you – turn yourself into the villain for a change. Why would you be that villain? What has affected you in life to turn you into the bad guy?

Your memories also make for good material when building atmosphere and mood. The political climate of the time, global or national interests, whether it is summer or winter, all have an effect on our characters. Think of the effects these things have (and have had) on you.

How might the world your character has grown up in affect them today? How good are they with friendships/relationships? What are their triggers for anger, passion (passionate about, passionate with – you choose), laughter? Can you use that in your story? Again, use your memory to delve into your own past.

Why not use the connection between a sensory trigger and memory for one of your characters? What would happen if the smell of car tyres in a garage brought back memories for your protagonist of his father breaking down and crying as he changed his son’s pushbike tyre? It’s a good opportunity to give some backstory in the guise of the memory.

Make sure the memory and the effect it has on the character are relevant to the story line and will move it forward; don’t give backstory for the sake of it. Sometimes the less said the better. Don’t overdo it and don’t forget to leave something to the reader’s imagination.

Memory can also trigger a moment of enlightenment, that aha moment. When 2+2 finally equals 4. You thought you had it all along but your brain was seeing it a certain way when all along it was something else. This is how our brains trick our memories and our perception of reality and the world we think we live in.

To give an example:

A woman’s mother has died. Their relationship had never been good and the woman was almost relieved at her death. She didn’t remember any touch between the two of them; they weren’t a family who hugged. As far as the woman is concerned she grew up in a cold, unloving environment. This is her perceived world.

After the mother’s death the woman discovers a box of old photos. All of them are of her and her parents. She can see happiness and love in her mother’s face as she holds and plays with the child in the photo. Now she is questioning her perception.

This leads to a slew of memories of things she’d forgotten about her mother – of happier times – but something had obviously happened and it all stopped. The woman remembers the period when her mother was withdrawing emotionally and the difficulty she had in coping with the loss of a doting mother. It occurs to her that at some point in her early life she had chosen not to remember this because of the pain it gave her. Now she is beginning to understand – the aha moment.

But something must have happened to mother that caused this withdrawal and she doesn’t know what. It makes her more forgiving of her mother, sad at not being able to resolve this while mother was still alive, and gives her a new challenge – to understand what happened to change her mother and their relationship.

Keep a journal of memories, and what triggered them. It’s a great tool for the writer (you’re collecting a wealth of material to inject into your stories) and it gives you good writing practice as you find the right words to describe what you recall, along with all the emotions and memorable events. Your journal can also serve as a great start for that autobiography you always wanted to write, or as a family history reference.

Don’t hold back. You might come across something you’re ashamed of or that is painful. Collect it. Whatever you’ve done with your life, and whatever has happened to you in life, is what has made you the person you are today. All those experiences, whether good or bad, have taught you things, maybe had lasting effects, and given you joy and sadness.

Write about it.

The more genuine you are in showing how your characters feel and act, the more real they become to you and to the reader – and the more real the world they move in becomes.