Writers Need to Have the Last Laugh

Sarge Bentley and his son at the pajama party

A common piece of advice for novel writers is to create character backgrounds for all of the main figures in the work, most often prior to beginning the writing. Those backgrounds could be considerable: you might detail not only the character’s general physical appearance and temperament, but things like what cereal he regularly eats (and if he slurps the bowl), her favorite kind of weekend dance music, which of their grandparents had thick hair, which the boldest gestures.

The concept behind this is that although—and even because—few of these minor details will ever be employed in the plot, you will have so saturated yourself in your characters’ consciousness that their actions as the story unfolds are direct reflections of the fullness (and often eccentricity) of their personalities.

The Sound of Memory
I was thinking of those things this Father’s Day, because I was trying to clearly remember my father’s laugh. That shouldn’t be too hard: my father lived 93 years, and he laughed easily, and enjoyed the laughter of others. Most of the photographs of my father show him with a broad smile, even after his Alzheimer’s robbed him of the clarity of his concerns. But I had some trouble this morning remembering the exact tone of my father’s laugh, its timbre, how it might build or fade.

That alarmed me, because my father has only been dead a few months, since New Year’s day. But my efforts were rewarded, because I was able to finally pull from memory the quality of his chuckle, how his face shaped his mirth and vice versa, and how the general atmosphere was lifted by the lilt of his laugh.

My struggles illustrate a useful writer’s lesson: pay attention to the details in your day-to-day—all of them. Fix them in your memory. It’s that airy wave of your first lover you don’t want to forget, because one of your characters might need that wave to fully become flesh in your reader’s imagination.

Regardless, you don’t ever want to forget your father’s laugh.

If you were wondering, yes, my hair in that photo is made entirely of polystyrene, yet is completely edible.