Saturday, September 15, 2018

Create Rich Characters by Tapping into Your Past

by Emme Gannon @GannonEmme

“Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward.” 

Charles Dickens penned these poignant words in what some say was his veiled autobiography, David Copperfield. The character Agnes was based on the love of his life, Mary Hogarth, who died at age seventeen in Dickens’s arms. His lost love plagued his dreams and thoughts his entire life and sought restitution in his writing.

Dickens drew from the tragedies of his life to portray a cast of unforgettable characters. 

As a result of his father’s irresponsibility and lavish lifestyle, the family was cast into debtor’s prison. The job to earn enough money to obtain their release fell to twelve-year-old Charles. His world crashed, as well as his hopes for a proper education. Humiliated beyond reproach, he clawed his way to such success that he ultimately earned $68 million dollars as an author—a giant of an income for any period in time. 

The stepping stones to his success meant unlocking the torrent of emotions stirring deep in his soul and using them to birth a cast of inimitable characters. Writing, to Dickens, became the balm of healing to the stirrings of a heart crying out to be heard.

On the subject of rejection and abandonment, the starring role went to Miss Havisham in his novel Great Expectations. Jilted on her wedding day, Miss Havisham stops the clocks at that moment in time, refuses to remove her wedding gown, and turns her mourning into bizarre behavior as she spends her life seeking revenge. Miss Havisham graphically illustrates what rejection looks and feels like. 

But Dickens goes a step farther. He shows what happens when we hold onto the pain. Eventually, Miss Havisham’s unbridled revenge turns inward, as her absent lover is not the least affected by her self-imposed pain.

As writers, we have a unique opportunity to open the door of our own tragedies as well as exulted moments and the emotions they awaken. By allowing our characters to experience the deep places of our soul, we breathe life into their being and intensify the dimension of our story, as well as give our readers the opportunity to relate. For who of us has not experienced rejection. Loss. Hope deferred. Exultation at a dream realized.

I know rejection and abandonment. 

The roots go back to age twelve when my father abandoned my mother, little brother, and me. All was lost—home, friends, our place in the community. Evicted from our house, we sought refuge with my grandmother in her tiny two-bedroom bungalow, where I was relegated to sleeping on one side of the double bed my mother had once shared with my father. 

I know love. 

Love that swallowed rejection from the past. Love that was a living example of agape—God-love that loves so deep there is no bottom. Unconditional love. Sacrificial love. Love that protects and heals the pain of the past. A husband who said his purpose in life was to love and care for me, no matter what.

I know loss. 

The empty place that once overflowed with love and laughter now silent, as disease ripped my husband from my arms. My life. My today. My tomorrow. A loss that left part of me somewhere—a place foreign to me—an emotional longitude with a name and location known only to God, who alone knows the route to peace. Who carries me there one step at a time. 

Because I know what rejection, love, and loss looks and feels like, I can write about them. If I will only allow access to that secret place. If I will turn off my cell phone, escape from my silent house, and go to a quiet place. And look. And listen. And allow my emotions to have a voice. 

By opening up our heart, we not only find release, but give our characters a deeper experience with which to display their lives in story. We give our story a soul and allow the journey of redemption to go full circle—through us, our characters, and, hopefully, our readers. Our words may, at first, pierce like arrows, but they go straight to the heart, where they have the ability to be transformed from death to life. As Charles Dickens said in David Copperfield, “By writing my story, I was able to heal.”

 By tapping into our past, we can be a living letter to those who read our words. Like Dickens, we can say, “By writing my story, I was able to heal.” Hopefully, our readers can say, “By reading that story, I was able to heal.”


Emme Gannon is a wife, mother, and grandmother who loves to write stories that stir the heart. Her award-winning writing has appeared in Focus on the Family magazine, several anthologies, and numerous newsletters. She just completed her first novel.


  1. Oh, Emme, your heart's message comes home through these words. As Christian writers, we have the unique privilege of reaching many of the weary people of this world through the words He gives us. The joy of finding the one person whose heart changed because of something we wrote!

    Our daughter writes plays, and during eight of our homeschool years and beyond, she had a drama troupe which performed them. One, a Civil War play, brought this kind of testimony to God's gifting her with the right words for the right person. An older gentleman came up to her at a different event a couple weeks after that shows performances. He asked if she was the playwright, and when she said yes, he told her this story (paraphrased):

    "I came to the first night of your play. (We performed them for free.) I only stayed for part of it, but I came back the next night to see it all. I was living in the mountains on my own and had nothing to live for. I thought about committing suicide … until I saw your play. I decided to give God a try. You saved my life that night in more ways than one. I just wanted to say thank you."

    Even now, the memory brings me chills … holy goosebumps, a friend calls them. Never stop writing to reach them! Even just one …. God bless you as you follow His voice.

  2. Oh, Cathy, thank you for sharing that beautiful story. It is such a testimony to the power of God as we yield our stories to Him and allow Him to use them for His glory. Blessings to you and your daughter as you bring truth and light to a hurting world.