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.
One day I was rummaging through some old folders filled with long forgotten free verse poems I wrote back in high school. Much of the experience was nostalgic. I could remember the very place I wrote some of them all those years ago: the doorway to the faculty lounge and the round table by the trophy case. I could vaguely remember the emotions motivating each piece, most of it teenage angst of feeling like a misunderstood mutant. Nothing was salvageable from the folders, nothing except a title: Graffitied Soul.
I was on the phone with my brother at the time, a man who is a singer/songwriter. I was reminiscing with him about the old days of my youth, reading him a passage or two from these old stack of poems, and usually we got a good laugh from it. Sometimes we cringed. Then I picked up one with that title: Graffitied Soul, and my brother said, “I think you might have something there.”
The original words to this poem were absolutely dejecting. Not that I’m totally against darker themes; I am a horror writer after all, but this one just seemed destined to be something else. The story is always the boss; I merely give it a place to grow. One morose passage declared, “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” My brother and I bounced around ideas, hoping to update it, to find new meaning out of the intriguing title. Below I will share with you what I came up with. The plan is to utilize the words for a song one day.
Here goes nothing:
“There you stand on the evening horizon, looking back on how far you’ve come. Windin’ trails that lead to abandon. Memories forever sewn in the dark.
And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.
Raindrops obscure the view outside the window, a view of a world moved on. Hearts broken. Stale grudges. Lay it to the dust. I’ve forgotten you cuz I was staring in the sun.
And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.
Like a train moving on to the fading horizon, time once again is on your side. No longer shall you molder in the dust of dried out umbrage. Time is but a mote on an eternal sea.
And that’s your soul. That’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.”
There you have it. It’s still probably doggerel, but it beats the original lyrics that declared “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” So I’ll take it!
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.