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Using Nostalgia to Create Memorable Characters

I’VE GOT A PROBLEM

Once J.D. Barker began mentoring me on the Writers, Ink podcast, I knew my approach to storytelling would be forever changed. When he told me what I was going to have to do first, I cringed.

I’ve spent more than ten years trying to cater to highly specific genre markets, such as supernatural postapocalyptic readers. Rightly so, I’d focused mostly on reader expectations, conventions of the genre that they’d expect to find as they read these stories. Therefore, I’d always start with the plot and eventually get around to fleshing out my characters.

“If my main character visited Disney World, I’d know exactly which ride he’d get on.”

That was what J.D. told me. He suggested that I start with character and then focus on plot.

I promised J.D. that I would honor him as my teacher and that I would do whatever he told me to do because I wanted to learn from him. Of course, I spent time working on characters, but not like that. Unchartered territory.

I considered several options when it came to character development. My first inclination was to study television and film, which is not a bad place to start. However, it might not be the best approach because what you see on the small or big screen is a representation of a character, not a character. In other words, it’s a facsimile of a real person, and therefore, what is on the screen is an idealized version of what a creator thinks a character should be. If I were to use that, I’d be creating a copy of a copy.

Another valid option is observation. I could go to parks, museums, or coffee shops, and I could pay attention to what people say and how they say it. The apparent drawbacks here are twofold. First, it would make me a bit of a creeper. But even more importantly, I was unlikely to get much more than polite, socially acceptable snippets of conversation. The best, most juicy examples of character happen behind closed doors.

That’s when I had the realization that I already had the tools I needed. And in this circumstance, if you’re an old dog, the more tricks you have available to you. I had a lifetime of experience and memories to tap—an unlimited potential of interesting, dynamic, and real characters.

MY CHARACTERS NEED TO FEEL REAL

I’m not the best at character development. I know that my strength is in scene and setting, but character is critical to keeping a reader engaged. I’ve been reading books and getting advice from my mentors, and although I understand intellectually what I must do, the question is always how.

Evoking emotion seems to be the answer. But what exactly does that mean? How do you pull emotions off the page and make them resonate with the reader?

Empathy is at the core of strong character development. When a reader feels as though a character would, they’re more likely to be invested in the outcome. But again, if we push deeper into this question, we’re still left with how to create emotional resonance.

Without getting too esoteric, I believe the answer lies in our own ability to tap into emotional states that were the most powerful in our lives, and one way to do that is through the use of nostalgia. I’ve discovered this often misunderstood and manipulated feeling can be used when drafting fictional characters with an attempt to bring them alive.

For writers, nostalgia is an emotional boomerang that can bring thoughts and feelings back around to a specific time and place. Shawn Coyne likes to say that specificity is the key to universality. The more specific you can make your character’s circumstances, the more universal the appeal.

But first, what exactly is nostalgia?

DEFINING NOSTALGIA

From etymonline.com: 1770, “morbid longing to return to one’s home or native country, severe homesickness considered as a disease,” Modern Latin, coined 1688 in a dissertation on the topic at the University of Basel by scholar Johannes Hofer (1669-1752) as a rendering of German heimweh “homesickness” (for which see home + woe). From Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” (see -algia) + nostos “homecoming,” from neomai “to reach some place, escape, return, get home,” from PIE *nes- “to return safely home” (cognate with Old Norse nest “food for a journey,” Sanskrit nasate “approaches, joins,” German genesen “to recover,” Gothic ganisan “to heal,” Old English genesen “to recover”). French nostalgie is in French army medical manuals by 1754.

Although the word first shows up in the late eighteenth century, we know that its origins run much deeper in human consciousness. It’s easy to see how Homer used the idea of algos and nostos to create a way to describe a painful ache for home. But even without an epic Odyssey, the concept of nostalgia is probably timeless, which is why it resurfaces in North America in the late nineteenth century.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission published a report in 1867 titled, “Sanitary Memoirs of the War.” In those papers, nostalgia was considered a medical diagnosis for the Northern troops during the U.S. Civil War.

“In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably.”

It’s interesting that this form of melancholic longing was deemed fatal by the doctors of the day.

In more modern times, psychologists coined a phrase for a specific type of nostalgia. They call it a “reminiscence bump.”

The timing of the bump is examined in a post from the Association for Psychological Science.

“Here was a man at middle age, still looking back nostalgically at his time as a boy. Had nothing else happened in the intervening years to eclipse his youthful fame and popularity? Was it all downhill from these peak experiences of high school?”

We’ve all known that guy or girl, the one who is still talking about the big win or the state championship run that happened 30 years ago. But we’re all susceptible to the reminiscence bump, as the article goes on to explain.

“It turns out he’s not alone in his vivid recollections of young adulthood. For others, it may be their college years, or even a little later. Most middle-aged adults, though, men and women, have a similar ‘reminiscence bump’ when they look back on their past. We all have more — and more vivid — memories of young adulthood than we do of any other time of life, no matter what personal and professional ups and downs we have along the way…the prevailing wisdom is that the reminiscence bump has biological and cognitive roots, reflecting the basic workings of autobiographical memory. According to this theory, our power to encode lasting memories is strongest at this stage of life, peaking before a steady decline into middle age and beyond.”

This is not hard science in the way that the effects of smoking can be observed and predicted. Pinpointing the most significant reminiscence bump is not exact. Yet, if you start to think about your own personal history, you’ll almost certainly find a bump in the same window of time—young adulthood.

One of my favorite authors of all time is Blake Crouch. He wrote a book called Recursion, which deals with the concept of memory—how memories are created and how they’re recalled. While a fascinating story, Crouch grounded elements of it in emerging sciences. I was fortunate enough to interview Blake for the Writers, Ink podcast, and I asked him about the difference between memory and nostalgia.

Crouch said, “I think nostalgia has a lot more emotion to it than just a random memory. I think nostalgia comes from a Greek word that means the ‘ache of an old wound,’ which I think is so beautiful. In other words, it’s a memory of maybe a more perfect time or at least it has that sort of sheen of perfection in our minds, and it’s something that we have in almost an unrealistic view of and we sort of idealize it. That’s what I think nostalgia is. It’s kind of the idealization of memories.”

The processing of memory plays a role in how we create nostalgia. I asked him if it is true that memories get reprocessed every time the memory is recalled, so a memory that you had five years ago is going to be different from that exact same memory remembered today.

Blake explains, “The mere act of recalling a memory and re-remembering it changes the memory. It changes how the neurons interplay and then work in concert to bring that memory forward, so yes, the more you remember something, the more you change the memory of that event.”

The next logical question is to ask how memory and nostalgia affect us on a personal level and how the phenomenon can be utilized in our writing.

MY NOSTALGIA

Psychology Today believes that the late teens and early 20s are ripe for nostalgia because that is a time when we’re forming a personal sense of identity. Regardless of when or where you grew up, you probably have a visceral and emotional connection to the person you were from ages 18-22. Pop culture, fashion, music, and more help to create the mental snapshot of our experience years or decades prior.

I’m square within the middle of the bell curve for Generation X. Born in 1971, I became a teenager in the mid-1980s and then a young adult as we approached the last decade of the twentieth century. So many things from the late 1980s and early 1990s will trigger my own nostalgia.

In 1992, I became of legal drinking age, which means an entirely new world opened up to me—for better and for worse. I was now able to see bands that I couldn’t before turning 21, including the first two Lollapalooza tours. From the great lawn at the outdoor amphitheater in Pittsburgh, I sang along with Eddie Vedder at Lollapalooza ‘92 when Pearl Jam broke into “Alive,” standing next to the hot girl who would eventually become my wife. That show sparked our lifelong love for each other.

The early 90s also saw the peak of Grunge, with bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains dominating the Billboard charts and even some of the most famous fashion runways in New York City.

As a young college student, I wrote op-ed pieces for The Pitt News—which, to no surprise—was much like writing the blog posts of today. My future wife worked at the University of Pittsburgh Student Union, where I would go to play billiards, listen to the CD jukebox, and flirt with her—not necessarily in that order.

Just a few years later, I’d followed her to the New York City area. We’d head into Manhattan to go clubbing at the coolest clubs of the time, like the famous Limelight, where we’d dance well into the early morning hours.

For me, and I’m sure for you, this period from 18-22 (roughly) is magical because you’re no longer a kid—but you’re not an adult either. Sure, you can make adult decisions with your brain and body, but we’re all still clueless at age 22.

There’s also an energy at that time of life that is hard to reconcile, a mix of fear of the future and hopeful excitement for it that finds its way into all aspects of life, from relationships to employment. Getting my degree in 1994 felt like the opening of the door of my adult life, and I couldn’t wait to explore it.

You may not have been born in 1971, but I’ll bet you’ve felt some of the same emotions and had some of the same experiences I did at the same age. Once you’ve conjured those nostalgic moments and savored that painful ache, what do you do with them?

For creatives and writers, the next step in channeling that energy is to begin by reframing it.

RETROFRAMING

Although I just made up the term “retroframing,” it works, especially as it relates to the reminiscence bump.

Psychology Today goes on to explain the bump by saying, “It turns out that the reminiscence bump applies particularly to happy memories (Glück & Bluck, 2007).  After the age of 30, when we think back on these times, the painful events become dimmer and dimmer.  We shape and re-shape our life stories, reworking the narrative in a way that enhances the way we feel about ourselves now (Whitbourne, 1985). It’s adaptive to recall the happy, not the sad, events from our past. However, it’s also important to reword some of those sad events. If we only focus on the positive, we’ll lose touch with the reality of the events that actually shaped who we are now.”

Most waves of nostalgia pulse positively, although that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have negative, nostalgic memories. For the most part, we remember those times and experiences fondly. And as Blake Crouch discussed, each time we resurface those memories, we shape them, continually rubbing away the rough edges until we’re left with a smooth memory of an idealized time.

The critical takeaway for writers is that the memory connects to an emotional state, whether it’s a positive or negative recollection.

In his 1992 article, “Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” Alan R. Hirsch stated, “Nostalgia, unlike screen memory, does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past.”

These “symbolic representations” can be just about anything, both tangible and intangible. For example, the sense of smell might be the most potent nostalgic trigger. It is why real estate agents ask the owners to bake chocolate chip cookies before an open house, helping to conjure fond memories of a safe and secure childhood, another representation of an idealized past.

Artifacts and talisman can serve the function as well, and many fictional characters carry charged objects throughout a story (Brian McDonald’s term for physical objects with strong sentimental value). Charms, religious artifacts, rings—just about any item can serve that symbolic representation.

It is in these connections where we can mine our nostalgia and infuse it into the story. For example, my grandfather gave me a religious charm when I was a teenager, and I wore it well into my 20s. He had died shortly after giving it to me, and that charm represented the quality time we’d shared, and seeing it on my chest in the mirror would trigger nostalgic thoughts. It’s in these specific but universal moments where we can bond reader to character.

Lauren Martin, for Elite Daily, wrote, “It’s the ability to understand these emotions in one another, to have empathy, that links us as humans and makes us better communicators. If it weren’t for nostalgia, we wouldn’t lament for others who had bad childhoods and connect with those with ones similar to our own.”

Again, it’s worth noting how empathy through symbolic representation can create a link between two people who have never met, or even between a real person and a fictitious one. Identifying with a similar experience connects people through empathy, whether that memory was a positive or negative one.

To create real and compelling characters, consider tapping into your memories of young adulthood and indulging in those nostalgic experiences. For me, music seems to the most provocative catalyst for returning me to a time and place that I perceive as slightly more positive than the actual memory. Just like those songs from the 1980s, my memories of that time get better every time I visit them.

This doesn’t mean all of your characters must be between the ages of 18-22 and imbued with your nostalgic glow. The idea is to tap into that emotion and transfer it to a character so that the reader cannot help but be empathetic to the situation.

Your goal is not to write yourself as a character when you were 20, but rather, it’s to use emotions of the past to create characters of the present—ones who your readers cheer for as the story progresses.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT PROMPTS

Hirsch wrote, “Emotionally-laden rituals discharge nostalgic energies through the physical activity of the ritual, while forging linkages with the past.”

Thinking about how this applies to the craft, consider actions that characters can take that link to your past, on an emotional level. Infuse your nostalgia into a character, and you’ll be charging the scene in a way you hadn’t thought possible.

This may seem like a challenging exercise to do without help, so I’ve created some retroframing prompts to jumpstart your memory and help you make connections to your characters.

As mentioned earlier, odors and scents are by far the most visceral rituals you can use, and they also happen to be one of the most underutilized tools of description in the author’s toolbox.

“Even as early as 1908, Freud recognized a strong link between odors and the emotions. (Freud). Anatomically, the nose directly connects with the olfactory lobe in the limbic system—that area of the brain considered the seat of the emotions.” Hirsch continues, “The olfactory lobe is actually part and parcel of the limbic system. (MacLean). Therefore, the most powerful impact upon the emotions is through the sense of smell.”

Let’s begin with a series of prompts that will help you dial in the emotional charge of your character by leveraging your nostalgia.

  • What did your childhood room smell like? Did your mother or father cook dinner regularly? If so, did they serve a “favorite” dish or two? What was it and how did it taste?
  • Once you were in college or left home, what was your favorite restaurant? What did it smell like?
  • Revisit photographs from your life from age 18 to approximately 22. Where are you? What were you happy about? What frightened you? Who else is in the photos, and how did you feel about them back then?
  • Whether you still have the CDs or need to stream the songs, listen to the top 10 songs from the year you turned 21 years old. What do they have in common? What was happening in the world at that time? What was happening in your life at the time? Close your eyes while listening to any of the songs. Where are you? When are you? Do you associate those songs with positive or negative experiences? Friendship, love, hate? Do the songs remind you of someone in particular? Someone special? Someone who hurt you?
  • Like you did with music, pick one movie released in the year in which you turned 21 and watch it again. What are the actors wearing? Did you wear clothes like that? Why or why not? Listen to how the characters in the movie talk. Do those once-popular phrases remind you of a specific time or place? Did you use the same slang they did in the film? Did you and your friends share those colloquialisms?
  • Search YouTube for television commercials that aired when you were a young adult. What products were they selling? Did you purchase them? Do they still exist today? Why or why not? Could you afford those products back then? What do the commercials say about societal values at the time?
  • Were you working a job when you were 21 years old? If not, what were you doing with your time instead? If you did have a job or were in college, who was there with you? What did you do before work? After work? Did you work because you had to or because your parents expected you to? What did you do with the money you earned?
  • Did you have a significant other as a young adult? If so, what happened to that person? Are you still with them? If not, why not? What was the happiest or most joyous moment you spent with that person? If they’re not in your life now, what would you say to them today if you could?
  • Close your eyes and imagine the main street or thoroughfare of your hometown. What shops were there? Where did you go to eat, drink, to have fun? Who was there with you? Did you have a best friend or hang out with a group of friends? What was the most memorable thing you did together? Did you live in a small town or a big city? Were there concerts or major sporting events of significance that you can remember from that time?

Look at your answers, and you’ll begin to see yourself as a character, as well as other characters from your past. You can now massage this raw material into the beginnings of a fictional character, inverting some elements but not others. For example, make a man a woman or vice versa. Or, pick a person from your past and begin to build a character profile that is based on that person’s speech or mannerisms. The possibilities are endless.

CASE STUDY: <RED87CLUB>

A few years ago, I co-wrote a short experiment with a good friend. Rachael Herron is the co-host of The Writer’s Well podcast and a phenomenal writer who is a hybrid, meaning she’s traditionally published and self-published. We decided to write the beginning of a novel set in 1987, and although the experiment didn’t quite work out, we wrote, revised, and edited several chapters.

The project is called “Red87Club,” and the idea was to write a story set in the 80s that leaned heavily on our own experiences as teenagers in that decade. To come up with our protagonist, Rachael and I (being the same age) tapped into our collective nostalgia and wove that into the narrative. Our goal was to tap into the feelings we had at that time, our emotional boomerangs, to make our character come alive—precisely what I’m proposing you can do with the prompts above.

Please note that the original version contained stronger profanity, which I removed to make the scene accessible to a more general audience. Also, the story was initially formatted to appear on a 1980s-style computer monitor, complete with a black screen and green font. I left a trace of that here only because I think it’s cool.

<RED87CLUB>

[11/02/87]

I’m probably dead. Everyone else might be, too.

That, or maybe we’re all living like Mad Max, thanks to Reagan and Gorby and their fingers on the buttons. The end of the world as we know it didn’t start in my sophomore year. And it didn’t begin with R.E.M. It probably happened sometime in the future, maybe in 1990 or 1995, and maybe you, person of the future, know how, because I sure as hell don’t.

***

Fall of 1987. Just another sucktastic Monday at just another completely boring high school in suburban New Jersey.

November sucks. Halloween is over, and the malls start hanging up the Christmas decorations. Fake Santa and his elves set up the “Wonderland” across from Spencer Gifts, and it doesn’t look anything like Higbee’s in A Christmas Story. You can’t hang out and rag on kids still wearing parachute pants if “Jingle Bells” is constantly ringing in your ears.

That’s probably why I was in such a pissy mood on that November second. I didn’t have plans for the weekend yet, although I knew it’d be like every other weekend—trying to score booze or weed before heading to the mall. Mr. Jones had been all over me in third-period American Civics, and by the time I got to my locker at dismissal, I was maxed out.

“Sup, dweeb?”

I turned my head in time to see Hawaiian prints and stonewashed denim. Freaking jocks. At least Jason Friedman and his jock-tourage weren’t talking to me. For once.

“Hey, Jason,” said the kid whose locker was next to mine.

Jason opened his dumb square jaw and yelled, “Don’t ‘hey’ me, spazz. You owe me three seventy-five.”

I really didn’t know the kid’s name. His locker had been next to mine since the beginning of freshman year, but we weren’t in the same classes and were rarely at our lockers at the same time. I had the inside of my locker door covered with pictures of Robert Smith and Dave Gahan while he had cutouts from Hit Parader—Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe. Whatever. At least he listened to music, which was more than I could say for half my peers.

Jason coming after this kid wasn’t unusual. He’d tried bullying me one time, calling me a faggot because I liked The Cure. As if. He didn’t even know what that word meant. Being a girl, I think I got off easy. The New Wave guys in my school got picked on all the time. And most of them had their left ear pierced.

“I paid you yesterday. Remember? Even bought you a Little Debbie from the vending machine outside the cafeteria.”

Georgie? Frankie? I knew his name was something totally dorky sounding. Jason and his jock friends had formed a circle around the kid, and because I was at my locker, I was in the middle of it now, too.

“No way, Freddy-pie. You didn’t.”

Freddy. Too bad the kid’s last name wasn’t Krueger. No dice. This little boy wasn’t a Dream Warrior—he looked too small to ride a full-sized bike, let alone give nightmares to anyone bigger than a mouse.

“C’mon, guys. I gotta get to the bus. If I’m late again, my mom will kill me.”

Jason took a step closer and grabbed Freddy the wanna-be prep by the collar of his IZOD. Pink, of course. “You. Owe. Me. Money.”

“Leave him alone.” I heard the words at the same time they were coming out of my mouth. I was feeling surly, courtesy of the civics homework I knew would take me two hours to finish.

“What was that, faggot?”

There it was again, the insult that kept on giving. Why did all the jocks and burnouts think New Wave was gay? Probably because the dudes into The Cure were stealing all their girlfriends.

“I said leave the kid alone. He’s not bothering you.” I felt a surge of adrenaline in my feet and fingertips. The way Jason’s jaw only grew quarter-sized patches of stubble was pissing me off.

One of the other jocks grabbed Freddy by the arm and pulled him out of the circle while Jason turned to face me. He had his Oakleys sitting on top of a brown nest of feathered hair. He smiled, his braces filled with whatever bright-orange junk food snack he’d just eaten. The boy’s blue eyes flashed, and when he opened his mouth, the mystery was solved. Doritos. Gross.

“Shut up, Janie. This ain’t none of your business.”

Yeah. F-that. Hearing him use the same nickname my dad did made me snap. It was like this bully had morphed into my asshole-father, right in front of my eyes.

Time slowed, and it felt like everyone in the hallway and at their lockers stopped. My face burned and my palms sweated. I think I might have giggled right before I did it—I swiped my jet-black hair away from my face and smiled through onyx lipstick.

Then I drove my knee so hard into Jason’s balls that I thought I felt them pop.

Things blurred after that. I felt a hand latch on to my black denim jacket, then through all the yelling, I heard the sound of fabric tearing. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, I was in Assistant Vice Principal Tony Lagrange’s office.

“You’re not leaving me any options, Janet. You’ve accrued ten detentions this semester alone. And that’s a gift, considering I’m not counting the ones you earned freshman year. Not to mention the incident in the bathroom.”

He was right. The dude had been rad for a principal. The Vice had not suspended me for smoking in the girl’s room. What could I say?

He spoke again before I could. “Why? Why did you assault Jason Friedman?”

Why do adults always ask why? It’s not like we know, and if we did, would it change what happened? My dad always asked the same thing, and it made my hackles rise every single time.

“Assault him? He came at me first!” Okay, technically untrue, since he’d been gunning for Freddy, but I’d have been next. Probably. Better safe than sorry, right?

Lagrange groaned like I’d given him a bellyache. “I don’t have time for this. You’re suspended for five days. Are you going to tell your parents, or do I need to call them? I’ve got a school board meeting in thirty minutes.”

“I’ll tell them.” Damn. Busted.

“You’d better. I’m sending the letter home tomorrow which means it’ll be in your mailbox by Wednesday. Please, Janet. For your own good. Quit trying to damage your permanent record. You think you’re going to get into Rutgers with this kind of antisocial behavior? When are you going to grow up, ditch the rebellious attitude, and become responsible?”

Responsible meant pink lip gloss and low white heels. Responsible meant being a Good Girl. The answer was, not yet. And definitely, not now. “Fine. I’ll tell my dad. Tonight.”

Lagrange opened his eyes like a sleepy cow wandering into a slaughterhouse. “I know how you feel, kiddo. I was a teenager once, as hard as it might be for you to believe.”

Ugh. The last thing I wanted was another lecture on how he understood me, what I’m going through. Bleh.

“I know. I’ll do better.” It was what he needed me to say, and damn it, I needed a smoke.

“You’re damn right, you will. I expect to see you back in school a week from today. Maybe by then you’ll clean up…all of this,” Lagrange said, waving his hand at my hair, my clothes, my entire identity.

“Yeah, Vice. Maybe I will.”

Funny. Now that I’m thinking about it, that was the last time I’d ever be in that building, and it had nothing to do with Lagrange’s tough love approach to discipline.

I skated home, my beat-up Powell-Peralta rattling under my feet, and went straight to my room and shut the door. I’d had enough drama for one day. Lagrange said my suspension letter would arrive on Wednesday, so as long as I faked going to school tomorrow morning, I had another twenty-four hours to tell my parents about the suspension—and prepare for the beating of my life from my dad.

A NEW APPROACH TO STORY PLANNING

I don’t know if my strategy of incorporating nostalgia into character development is going to pay off. Unfortunately, it’s not the type of data point that can be easily measured. But I do know that my process of character development is significantly better than it was before, and it’s forced me to improve my craft, which is something all creatives want to do.

On a personal note, I have a love/hate relationship with my nostalgia. Some days it feels like sinking into a warm bath, and on other days, I get that “ache of an old wound,” as Blake described it. I consider myself Stoic, not one to dwell too heavily on the past or worry about the future. But all it takes is one whiff of Mom’s apple pie or the opening riff to “Welcome to the Jungle,” and I’m right back in 1987, a place that no longer exists and where my current self is not welcome.

The “San Junipero” episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” series best represented both the dreams and dangers of chasing nostalgia. The show asks the question, “If you could live eternally in one moment of your life, would you? And if so, which one?” Although it’s a tantalizing theoretical question (at least, for now), it’s not a new one. We’ve always yearned for the idealized version of the past, and so maybe it’s worth realizing that the present moment is all we can control, and in doing so, we can add it to our treasure of nostalgic indulgences.

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