The beauty industry is rife with before and after pictures. Their aim is to show potential customers the benefit of some product or treatment, hence the “after” picture is far more appealing than the “before” picture.
Lately, I’ve noticed conversations containing the before/after phrase, not in regards to a beauty treatment, but in relation to COVID-19. The pandemic created a great slash through the normal progression of our lives. We have “before,” when families and friends gathered for celebration and sorrow. When the only consideration in creating a guest list was the size of the table. Babies were born and grandparents, aunts and uncles flocked to the nursery to greet the new arrival. In times of loss, the bereaved drew strength from the mourners who assembled to comfort them. We didn’t think twice about being present in a group.
COVID changed all that. Some grandparents didn’t cuddle a newborn until the babe had become a toddler. Families grieved in isolation, unable to hold the hand of a loved one as they passed from this life. Our new guest lists may exclude the unvaccinated. Remember when banks had signs outside requiring customers to remove sunglasses and caps before entering the building? Now we see a masked man in a bank and shrug.
Most pandemic related restrictions have been removed now, but our behaviour has not returned to the “before” times. I doubt it ever will.
From a personal and social point of view the effects of the pandemic are significant, leaving us more cautious, suspicious of our fellowmen. We must navigate a new “normal” and the journey is uncomfortable and awkward.
From a writer’s point of view, the experience of the pandemic gives us a whole range of new responses for character-building. If a good story starts at a turning point, we have loads of examples from our daily lives to show what happens when a character hits a crossroads. Does she defy the risks and go out and party with strangers? Does she withdraw into her cocoon and miss out on the rest of life? Does she feel her way back into the life she had before, or does she close the door on those times and start over?
In my wip, the heroine is a widow. She behaves like a new widow, even though she lost her husband five years before the story began. That is because she has decided to withdraw — from friends and neighbours, from community, from organizations — from everything that gave her life meaning before her sudden change in circumstances.
Since the pandemic, I can look around me and see that response in real life. I know people who have stopped coming to church, have stopped going to the grocery story, have given up on movies or concerts, have cut themselves off from personal contact with anyone outside their household. I can use my observation of these people to give more depth to my protagonist
In my story the heroine is jolted out of her half-life by events — it would be a boring story if she wasn’t — and I can witness the same thing around me as people venture into society once more. Some are cautious, wearing masks in every indoor setting. Some are being social, but only with a few close friends. Some are racing full-throttle into crowds of strangers. More grist for the story-teller’s mill.
Regardless of how people respond to the post-COVID world (actually, the virus is still around, it’s just the restrictions that have changed) no one has been untouched by it. We all have this wide chasm, an empty place in our lives, from when the pandemic was at it’s worst. We date our memories as pre-pandemic or after. It’s as though we have had two lives.
One ended in March of 2020.
As writers, this is familiar ground. Our stories are about change. Page one is “before,” and the end is “after.” We can give our characters successes and defeats. We can make them victims of circumstances, or we can make them masters of their own lives. In fiction, we can make it up as we go along. That’s the joy of writing, The question is, how will we manage in real life?
In March of 2023 we begin the second part of our own story.