Exorcising the Haunted Past

Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.
Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – Magnolia (a movie I detested, proving again that flowers sometimes grow from a pile of manure)

I saw a tweet flit through this morning about how someone was wishing that just once, a character wasn’t haunted by his or her past.  At first it’s a sentiment one might rush to agree with, given the seeming flood in popular culture of privileged yet angst-ridden characters wailing to the cold, unfeeling world that no one can possibly understand the soul-scraping depth of their pain.  The impetus to scream “get over it!” in those instances can be difficult to resist.  But it’s probably overly simplistic to blame the trope of the “haunted past,” given that the reason it still functions is that everyone you meet has a past, and in quite a few of those cases, it wasn’t all smiles und sunshine.  We are creatures of linear time; our past informs the decisions we make in the present as we plan for the future.  The concept of learning is based on the notion that we must garner wisdom by making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and correcting them to be able to go forward.  The propagation of the human race depends on this.  How many of us are married to the first person we ever dated?  Do we not apply the lessons from the fumbling moments of that first awkward relationship to our subsequent dalliances in the hopes of establishing a permanent connection with the right person?  Yet admittedly, as company, we become tiresome if we dwell forever on things we once did wrong – if we live in that past instead of simply letting ourselves be guided by it.

In the creation of enduring characters, this is a tricky tightrope to walk.  Expecting an audience to sympathize with a perfect person who has made no mistakes and regrets nothing is a tall order, and few writers (at least those that are not perpetual amateurs) would dare try.  The problem is that most force the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  Allegorically (though somewhat to the point of cliché) the past can indeed be considered a heavy load borne on the character’s back.  However, that burden should be in an appropriate weight class – if a perfectly healthy adult is going to moan about dragging a five-pound barbell around then they’re going to lose our interest and attention pretty darn fast.  More appealing are those who carry their pasts privately instead of on their sleeves.  They have a history but they don’t dwell on it; they don’t broadcast it to any and all within range and grab at every precious fragment of pity.  If one is to look for a singular example of this, eyes should wander no further than Batman.  Bruce Wayne is changed profoundly by the death of his parents and his inability to exact vengeance for their murder.  It’s what drives him to don the cape and cowl and roam the night skies beating the crap out of criminals for the rest of his days, on an ultimately futile quest to make the pain go away.  Note that what’s important about this is that he does something.  He doesn’t let his grief cripple him into inaction, into endless sessions of whining to Alfred about how the world is so hard and he just can’t catch a break.  Instead, he becomes the goddamn Batman.  Would Batman be believable, or even interesting, if he was just some silver-spoon-fed playboy billionaire with loving, very much alive parents, who decided to fight crime for something to do on Tuesday evenings?  Hardly.  The haunted past is an integral part of his character.  What it is not, though, is the entirety of his existence going forward.  This, I think, is where some may err, both in creating characters and living their actual lives.

I’ve argued before that characters haunted by a past that is never explained are the most compelling of all.  William Goldman makes this point in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and points to a famous exchange from Casablanca whereby you learn the entirety of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s backstory, or at least all you’re going to get out of him:

CAPTAIN RENAULT

What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK

My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

CAPTAIN RENAULT

The waters?  What waters?  We’re in the desert.

RICK

I was misinformed.

This works so much better than had Rick launched into a meandering history lesson about his impoverished childhood working in a Brooklyn sweatshop making mattress springs for a nickel a day, followed by his hard-luck teenage years picking fights over candy bars, the tragic loss of his first love in an unfortunate streetcar accident and his subsequent quest to find himself at the bottom of whisky bottles in speakeasies across Chicago.  Dear gods, I’m bored just writing this imagined synopsis of his life; how tedious a man would Rick Blaine be, and how swiftly forgotten by movie audiences, if he decided to spill something similar to Captain Renault?  By being evasive about his past, Rick keeps us interested.  His inscrutability makes his choices that much more difficult to guess, that much more compelling to watch.  Until the very end we don’t know that he isn’t going to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa and leave Victor Laslo behind as a prize for the Nazis.  It hasn’t been telegraphed for us by dwelling to the point of exhaustion on What Makes Rick Miserable.

The lesson for today, then, is to keep a lid on the angst.  The haunted past should not be a cement block in which the character is forever anchored, flailing his or her arms to get people to pay attention (and perhaps bring a sledge hammer to shatter it).  It should inform their choices but not overwhelm them in a cesspool of woe-is-me.  As Goldman says, play it as it lays.  It’s noteworthy that in almost all good time travel fiction, the character who has a chance to change an old mistake comes to realize that mistake is a crucial part of their life and that things are ultimately better the way they always were.  Indeed, we are never truly through with the past, it’s who we are.  However, we, and the characters we write, can choose how we wear it.  We can wallow, and keep pointing out our scars to passersby in the vain hope the lines will somehow fade away, but they won’t.  Instead, as we go forward, those scars can be our roadmap.  And with a good map at our side there’s no reason to keep it in first gear.

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