Some minds are like a beautiful meadow, a field of grass dotted with colorful flowers. Thoughts flow like a crystal clear stream. A mind of pristine concinnity.
Others resemble a grotesque dungeon, a constricting space of stirring shadows and rattling chains. Thoughts wander blindly like prisoners, wailing at walls of misgiving and despair. A mind of haunted asymmetry.
You’ve probably heard this writing metaphor before when it comes to characters: what is depicted on the page is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at something more vast and complex beneath the surface. The vast structure beneath the surface of what you see depicted in a scene is the backstory of that character: what came before to make them who they are in the present. Even if those buried traits do not rise to manifest themselves directly in a scene of your novel, they still serve as an indirect influence in subtler ways.
I like to imagine my character alone in their bedroom. Maybe this room is a small studio apartment, or one of many in a grand mansion. Perhaps your character is a drifter staying in motel rooms or sleeping on strangers’ couches. Whatever the scenario, how they interact with that room will tell you a lot about them. Are they extremely tidy? Do they carefully fold each piece of clothing and stack it in the same place every night? Do they feel near panic at the slightest sight of dust and must clean it immediately? Why? What influences them to be this way? Did a family member from their past exhibit this same behavior? Does your main character still hear this family member’s demanding voice echoing in their mind? If the room is tidy or messy it reveals a lot about the character’s personality and backstory. Explore it.
What else can you describe about his/her private room? Does abstract art hang on the walls? If so, what does that tell you about your character’s way of thinking? Perhaps instead they like to display pictures of family. This tells you family is special to them. Why? Is their a particular family member they value most? All kinds of character revealing pathways to explore in the art and decorations throughout the room.
There’s one important question I always ask myself when exploring a character’s private room. This question really penetrates the heart of them, the juicy center: what secrets do they conceal in their room? It may be an object hidden in the closet or under the bed. What does that object mean to them? Why is it kept hidden? This question can lead to some fascinating answers about your character, and sometimes the answer is the course of a plot, which happened to me while writing a short story called “The Butterfly Girl” (unpublished). I discovered that a hat belonging to her father was very special to her, because it triggered precious memories to her mind about fishing with her deceased father when she was a child. Later she uses the hat as part of a conjuration ritual in an effort to contact her deceased father’s spirit.
The secret doesn’t have to be an object. It could also be an activity they practice alone that nobody knows about. Either way, exploring your character’s bedroom is an invaluable tool for character development and backstory.
Tonight, she walks amongst the moon-frosted forest. Wretched figures stir the gloom, thrusting like pleading worshippers before an alien god. Their insatiable cries transfix her. She awaits the fateful embrace of wailing and gnashing teeth…
I’ve heard it said that we dream every night, but we usually don’t remember our dreams. Seldom do I remember mine. Only a handful of times can I recall the details of my dreams vividly, and the few fragments I do remember seem like they would serve as inspiration for a really good horror novel, or collection of shorter stories. I’ll tell you about them, and perhaps in my examination, further inspiration will germinate.
Back in high school much of my writing consisted of emotional ejaculations all over numerous notebook pages–free verse entries I claimed to be heavy metal lyrics. Me and a group of school chums started a power metal band called Codessa. I took on bass playing duties and lead vocals. Day in and day out, while I should have been taking notes and completing homework, I spent most of my time indulging in my teenage angst, writing songs with titles like, “Internal Bleeding”, “A Demons Crucifixion”, and “Can’t Deal With Myself When I’m Dealing With You”, and composing nauseating doggerel with lines like this, “Your hypnotizing scream. What does it mean? The confusion of this is making me insane. In this world of the mentally ill. All souls I’d kill. Kill the will to feel.” So on and so forth. Stilted bursts of trivial vexation.
No surprise, the band didn’t make it. We all graduated high school and went our separate ways, as the story always goes. Then one night I had the dream. I know what partly inspired it. Having seen the movie The Ring not too long before my nightmare, I’m sure the wretched figure crawling out of the screen in the movie played an influencing role.
I found myself in a derelict church. Cobwebs festooned the corners of the ceiling and draped over the abandoned pews. I stood at the end of the aisle, near the pulpit. Waiting. A storm raged outside. Rain and wind pummeled the building. Thunder rumbled. I saw her, a woman in a white wedding dress, face covered with a veil, slowly walking toward me, hands behind her back. I waited as the lightning flashed, highlighting the scene with flickers of electric blue. Soon she stood before me, removing the veil with one emaciated hand, revealing a desolate gray face that hissed at me with horrid anguish. No eyes in that gaunt skull, just pits of darkness. She then revealed a dagger with her other hand and stabbed me repeatedly. The last thing I saw before waking up was the sight of my bleeding body curled up on the ground.
I was stunned. I remember every detail with near perfect clarity. The dream is responsible for my renewed efforts at writing fiction. I abandoned my efforts of writing lyrics for heavy metal music after experiencing this dream. I wanted to complete the story the nightmare image suggested. I’m still seeking the answers.
Years later, another nightmare hit me like a high velocity bullet. I woke up feeling like I had been physically indented by the dream, as if something had entered me. Again I wandered about a nearby church. There was a small graveyard just behind the church building. A sickening feeling of terror overwhelmed me as I walked amongst the gravestones. All of them were marked with strange graffiti (by golly, I think I just discovered the title for this story–strange graffiti), alien symbols of crosses, swirling circles, and bizarre shapes covered each grave marker. I wanted to scream, but for some reason I couldn’t. It was too overwhelming for me. I wanted to run away, but the nightmare held me in that unholy, desecrated place. I awoke gasping, as though I had escaped a room filling with poisonous gases.
Nightmare shards, fragments of what could be. In time, my friends, these tormenting visions will be made whole.