Wednesday, January 4, 2012
What a Character!
One of my part-time jobs is working at my local Meals on Wheels packing site. Meals on Wheels (MOW) is a not-for profit organization that my mom worked for when I was a kid, so I've had a long history with the great things this group does for its community. Primarily run by volunteers, MOW provides meals to home-bound seniors, but it's more than just "Here's your bagged lunch, have a nice day." For some seniors, the driver is the only face they see all day, so MOW becomes much more than just a meal.
I don't deliver the meals, but MOW, based out of a senior center, also has folks who are not home-bound who come in on their own or with help from public transportation to eat with us. Some take classes at the center, which offers everything from languages to Yoga. These are the characters of which I speak. I've never had a lot of interaction with seniors in my own family as they are spread out around the country. And my eighty-one year old grandmother was zip-lining last year, so it's hard to consider her a senior. Often, the elderly get a really bad rap, but the people I've met through MOW are absolutely fantastic. Even the cranky ones. They tell me stories of the wars they've fought, the children they've lost, the loves they never had. But they also have stories of adventures in Italy and swing dancing and grandchildren who light up their day. Rich lives with endless stories.
It makes me think about our characters in fiction. As a writer, you have to create that richness for your character, the ups and downs that reflect real life, and even some that don't. It helps to have lots of interactions with real people. Not to recreate their lives on paper, but to see how the variety of life effects people, interacts with their personality, and makes them the real person they are. And you can steal bits of that for your fiction, of course, which is always helpful. We all know good writers steal a little, great writers steal a lot. And I don't think that you can write about people as well if you don't know people. While imagination goes a long way, experience seals the deal.
There is one man in particular who comes in to get a cup of coffee and say hello to us each day. He doesn't eat with us, but he takes dance classes through the center. Line-dance, swing, tap, you name it. He comes in wearing pristine clothing from the 1940's. Real Zoot Suits! He's a small, Italian man with a huge smile and still-bright eyes and he loves to chat. He even brought us little Christmas gifts--just small tokens from his home, but that made the gesture even more touching. On Halloween, he wore a bright orange T-shirt that read: This IS my Costume! and blew one of those round, plastic siren whistles all around the building. Talk about a character. I'd love to spend the day listening to him, but of course, my job doesn't allow that. However, I do appreciate the small conversations that we can have. It would be just as easy to close myself off from the folks who come in, but what would be the advantage in that? (Besides getting my work done sooner.) It's much more fun to get to know a little bit of who these people are.
We're all going to grow old. That's just a fact. But it's up to us to decide how to do it. Are you going to be one of the cranky ones who throw things and curse at the hand that feeds you? (We have one of those, too.) Or are you going to embrace life, with it's unpredictable turns, and keep on dancing? Both are rich in character, for sure, and both have had complicated lives, but it's the one blowing the whistle in the end who makes for a much more enchanting story, and even more memorable friend.