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Sandra McLeod Humphrey

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Just Part of the Family
by Sandra McLeod Humphrey   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, May 13, 2004
Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

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To make our characters real to our readers--characters whom they really care about--we must care about them first

Just Part of the Family

I know that we all try to follow the advice of the “pros” when it comes to characterization--we try to make our characters as three-dimensional as possible and we try to give them their necessary “warts.”

But what I’ve noticed recently with my characters, is that they have moved in with me and become part of our family--many times uninvited.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that takes place at a girls’ summer camp in northern Minnesota and it’s still a little disconcerting when I find the camp director, Mrs. A, at my breakfast table shoveling sugar into her tea or rummaging through my fridge, looking for avocados for her guacamole dip.

And it’s not just Mrs. A who has moved in. Leslie and some of her camper friends are also showing up unexpectedly. I found Trisha (a young black girl who longs to have her own garden amidst the chaos of the inner city) in my backyard last week. She wasn’t being a nuisance or anything. She was just out there, smelling the flowers.

Then there’s the anorexic Jennifer. She hasn’t actually moved in yet, but I see her more than I like to in some of the young girls I mentor at our church. They talk about their control issues at home and how food is the only thing in their lives they feel they have any control over.

And, of course, there’s Rachel, “the cutter,” who I repeatedly saw in my young patients at the state mental hospital who insisted that they had to cut to “feel better.” They told me at length how they could deal more easily with their physical pain than with their psychological pain and how the physical pain gave them a temporary respite from their psychological pain.

I’ve even run into Cynthia Winston, the villain of the piece, right in my own bathroom--usurping the bathroom mirror while she applies her eye makeup. To be honest, I see Cynthia whenever I pass any mirror. She is always there, preening and giving me her little Mona Lisa half-smile.

Although I have never invited my characters to move into my home and usurp so much of my life, I find I’m becoming used to having them around and sometimes I even find myself looking about for other characters to add to my collection.

I think what I’ve concluded from all this is that to make our characters real to our readers--characters whom they really care about--we must care about them first. They must be so real to us that we see them everywhere we go and in everything we do, sometimes in the expected places and sometimes in the most unexpected places.

I think it’s important that we keep our eyes and our minds always open because we just never know when or where we’re going to run into some of our most irresistible characters and their friends.

When our granddaughters have their friends over, I find myself eavesdropping on their conversations, not because I’m particularly nosy, but because I really want to know how pre-teens think and what they think about.

And when I’m leading a rap session with my junior high students, I find myself listening to them on several levels. I hear their words, but I’m also listening to what’s underneath the words: their pain, their insecurities, and their dreams.

It seems that everywhere I go these days, I run into my characters--either characters I already know or potential characters for future books and stories.

Yesterday at the eye clinic, I ran into a wonderful grandmother who announced to all the women in the waiting room that her grandchildren were requesting fruit roll-ups, but she had forgotten how to make them. Did any of us know how? No one did, which is probably a sad commentary on the culinary skills of this generation, but this grandmother and her fruit roll-ups will undoubtedly show up in one of my future stories.

And I found myself listening, not politely but intently, as the technician who examined my eyes for glaucoma, told me about her son, who’s a senior in high school, and all his problems. This was not just another opportunity to gain more insight into a mother’s concerns but also an opportunity to collect more data for my teen characters of the future.

Our living, breathing characters are all around us every day. Sometimes we don’t even have to look for them--they just emerge on the scene, fully blown and uninvited. How fortunate we are then because all we have to do is add them to our memory bank along with the multitude of other characters already stored there, just clamoring to get out and come to life on paper.

We all write for the love of writing, so I think it follows naturally that we dredge up the characters we do because we love them too. Or, maybe in some cases, we dredge them up because we really hate some of their attributes. But whatever the feelings, they are strong feelings, and our characters become part of our writing lives because they are already a real part of our lives at some level, conscious or unconscious.

So now I no longer feel “put upon” when my characters move in and seem to take over so much of my life. Now I tell them that they are most welcome and are free to stay as long as they want to. And I invite them to bring their friends as well.

Web Site: Building Ethics Early

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Reviewed by Shoma Mittra 10/20/2005
Hi Sandra, You've got it spot on. I find the characters in my stories consume me too - eating, breathing, sleeping - they are always there peeking from somewhere. I even look for them amidst the strollers on the street and the kids at the gaming parlour, the women at the supermarket and the man riding down the elevator with me.

An enriching read. Thank you. - shoma
Reviewed by Michelle Kidwell Power In The Pen 5/15/2004
I often find my characters moving in on me too...
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