Our pasts are filled with experiences, both good and bad, which teach us who to trust, what to believe in, and what to avoid. The painful experiences—the wounds—influence us so deeply that we will do almost anything to avoid feeling such pain again. That past trauma is likely to affect our future behavior as well.
As writers, how do we create characters who feel realistic? By mirroring real life as much as possible. That includes developing a backstory for each character that lets us understand him/her on the deepest level. Knowing who and what influences a characters gives us insight to what they fear, desire and need most of all. Sometimes even if the character doesn’t know himself.
Because of this internalization, a lie is born.
When a person is wounded, he wraps himself in emotional armor to keep his feelings safe. Flaws develop, working under the rationalization of protecting himself from getting hurt further. Oftentimes, instead of keeping the person safe, these flaws limit him, preventing him from building healthy relationships, or putting a filter of distrust on all he sees.
Do you know anyone like this?
This year I’ve had my novel antagonist under the microscope, examining his backstory “wounds” and focusing all his hurt and pain into a single moment in his past that explains his motivation (and rationalization) to kill.
But he had a job to do.
When Jace came out, the man put down his black coffee and raised binoculars to his eyes. He watched Jace unlock his metallic blue Mustang. The bastard was whistling as he slid behind the wheel. That smug face, seemingly right in front of him, thanks to the magnified lens, made his breath catch and stomach acid bubble up and burn his throat.
e squeezed the binoculars until his fingers ached. Breathing hard, he imagined his hands around Jace's neck, squeezing, squeezing, until that cocky smile disappeared, replaced by terror.
Chances were Jace wouldn't remember him. He’d lost weight and was dressed as a civilian in a dark ball cap and a Black Sabbath t-shirt. But his old squad leader hadn’t changed a bit. Still slim, buff and full of himself. Still the lady’s man.
He shut his eyes as his nostrils filled with the old-penny scent of blood. The car, the heat, the sleazy motel faded away. Instead, he imagined what those last hours must have been like, while his wife was on the operating table, her belly clamped open, blood filling the cavity faster than the nurses could suction it out. He imagined the tiny body of Baby Emily, still attached, while the surgeon worked frantically to get her out and save her mother. He imagined the still form disappearing, its face submerged in blood.
“No. No. No.” He trembled as terror seared his guts and the flashback engulfed him. His arms, of their own volition, reached out to touch his wife, to help lift his baby daughter’s head above the blood, to clean out her nose and throat and force her to breathe.
The rumbling of Jace’s turbo-charged Mustang brought his thoughts back to the motel. He relaxed his cramped hands from the binoculars and massaged his chest. Just my luck to have a heart attack in this dusty, shit hole parking lot. His face was wet and tears had soaked the neck of his tee shirt.
Anger boiled away his tears, as he thought about Jace Merrick, the self-involved asshole who made him miss his wife’s delivery. She lost her life and he lost his career. But Jace? Nothing. A night in the stockade for starting a bar fight, that’s all.
Soon after Barb and Em’s death, they told him he’d suffered a psychotic break during a night patrol. He was convinced people were trying to kill him.
“Of course they are, you jackass,” Jace had said. “We’re in the middle of a war zone.” He slapped him on the helmet and sent him back out on patrol the next night.
So he continued his normal duties and buried it all. Or tried to. But who wants a sniper with the shakes? He looked down at his trembling hands in disgust.
“All Sarge’s fault,” he mumbled, cursing his platoon leader in his mind with all the dirty words he could think of. “All your fault.”
He knew he was sick. The over-exposure to violent deaths had infected him like a toxin. His shakes got worse, and his CO noticed. Told him he had no choice but to remove him from active duty.
He snuck into the CO’s office and read the medical discharge. “His sense of reality is fragile in the extreme,” it read. “For his own sake, and for the safety of his squad mates, he needs rest and in-patient psychiatric care.”
He disagreed. What he really needed was revenge.
I think his backstory will help make this killer tragic and relatable, and he’ll also have a redeemable moment at the end of the book.
Thank you for reading!