I’m often asked about how I build my stories or what inspires my characters, and as it’s almost impossible to talk about most aspects of Winterset Hollow, my debut dark fantasy, without giving away a twist or two, I thought I would instead talk a little bit about a particular character archetype that often appears in my work—the character that isn’t there. There always seems to be a player who’s dead or missing or otherwise physically uninvolved yet crucially important to the stories I write…somebody whose history weighs heavy on the characters who are present…somebody whose footprints swallow them whole…somebody whose legacy defines the narrative…and I’m about to tell you why.
There’s just something about the ghost of history that appeals to me. I love the idea of generational momentum and the contagion of family trauma, and let’s face it, the remains of the past have an impact on every one of us every single day we walk this earth…so in a way, it only feels correct for me to highlight those stressors and those influences and show how they change…or don’t change…my characters. But in another more academic way, it’s almost necessary for me to include the weight of history on my stories’ scales, because I often don’t leave myself much room to maneuver, so sometimes I need to use every last tool in my box to get the job done.
My stories are typically quite contained when it comes to setting, scope, and cast. I normally don’t concern myself with more than a handful of main characters and locations, and my tales almost always play out over a relatively brisk timeline, so when it comes to building a world that still feels big and broad and textured and real, I often find that I have to look to different dimensions to find that space…and one of those dimensions is time, and similarly…history. The specter of what’s come before always looms large over my stories’ present, and it’s often the legacy of a powerful character that drives the narrative in some way, and that mechanic gives me room to inject some motivation or drive into a space while still being able to keep it from feeling cluttered and overworked. It gives the ‘now’ room to breathe, even though the shadow of the past is still cooling everything it cloaks…it takes up a bit less room on the actual page, but still provides the same impact.
Another reason I love the character who isn’t there is that once people can no longer speak for themselves, that is, once they’re dead or otherwise silenced…their characterizations only exist when other characters speak about them. In that way, they sort of become an inkblot test for anybody who knew them or knew of them. Their substance becomes a way for an audience to know other players better…and if there happens to be some sort of hidden truth about them that’s not revealed until the latter stages of a story, it can be used as a clever way to reframe how we’re supposed to feel about a character at a critical juncture (not that I would ever use such a tactic lol). If it’s done tactfully…that kind of interplay can almost act as a Rosetta Stone for the morality of a narrative, which again, can add some depth to a confined space. It’s also a bit easier to keep a secret about somebody (as a writer) for a longer stretch if they’re not actually there to make that process too difficult, but don’t tell anybody that I told you that 😉
Another facet of all of this is that I love power dynamics that stem from knowledge versus ignorance. I love the interplay that gatekeeping brings to a story, and when access to the truth surrounding somebody’s legacy is of paramount importance, it can make for some very interesting string-pulling and potentially devastating manipulation. And while both of those things are important ways to inject drama, they’re also key ingredients in a good twist, which is something that I’ve grown quite fond of crafting…and also another way to cultivate an interesting flow within a limited theater. If you don’t have the space to maneuver outside of the walls you’ve established…you gotta build in those turns if you want to keep moving forward. Basically, it can make for an interesting knot to untie if you’ve got the patience for that kind of thing. It always always always makes a story more interesting when there’s a good mystery involved, and a questionably authentic reality surrounding a character who’s no longer there is a good way to introduce that sort of dynamic.
So, yes…the present is important…but history is important too, for history is what gives us the scars we wear and the successes we celebrate…and the past holds the chisel that’s shaped us. So, pay attention to the characters that aren’t there, particularly if you’re crafting a story that’s a bit confined, because if just might open up doors that you didn’t even know existed…and it may give you a few options that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. After all, the shadow of the past is always there, so you might as well pay it some mind.