Having my computer face the window of my office is a mixed blessing. I can see the sunshine on a winter’s day, and the bare limbs of a tree stark against the snow – but that same sunshine glares in my eyes as I look at the computer screen. My solution was to get a cheap sun visor at a dollar store. The visor was a poor fit. It had a hard plastic band sized for someone with a smaller hat size, and pinched the sides of my head if I snugged it down, so I generally wore it perched on top of my head with the visor tilted down to shield my eyes as best it could.
This week that hard plastic band broke. Without it, the visor lacked the structure to hold it to my head at all. When I broke a piece out of the middle and put the two side-ends back in their casing, I could make it fit at last. But now, the broken ends of that band poked at my brow. Today I got out needle and thread and a length of thick brocade ribbon, thinking to sew it across the break and cushion those broken ends.
As I sewed, my visor’s transformation from cheap mass-produced item to unique, custom-fit accessory reminded me of the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit. The toy becomes real because of how thoroughly it is loved and used, although it grows worn and threadbare in the process. The damages are what make it distinguishable from every other toy rabbit on the toy store shelf. The same adventures that damage it give it character.
Broken and mended as it is, my visor now has character. Character is an issue familiar to all writers. Our characters seem real to the extent that they have unique experiences that have touched them and changed them, from which they’ve learned and grown and become someone distinguishable from anyone else in the world.
I came to appreciate this principle first through visual arts. Especially the functional-art bookmarks I’ve been making for years now. Because of the bookmarks, I had the ribbon on hand that I needed in order to adapt my visor to my needs.
There are a vast array of colors, patterns and styles of ribbons, from narrow satin to wide brocade, to printed cottons and wire-edged organzas. There are beads in as many sizes and colors, from tiny glass seed beads, to large rough-cut shells, or many sizes of pearls, to shiny metal icons, to natural stones from quartz to jasper to opal and ruby, rough nuggets or precisely cut shapes. The potential variations I could create with my bookmarks seem truly endless. Each combination acquires a unique character.
Why settle for stereotypes in writing characters when the potential combinations of human qualities and experiences must be at least as variable as with beads and ribbons? People come in all sizes and shapes, from families rich, poor, and everywhere in between, with backgrounds touching every sort of work and industry, political belief, educational training and interconnections within their communities. Every person embodies a small world of unique characteristics at birth, and our experiences in life only add to the depth of that identity. We each become more real as we love and explore our lives. I, for one, want to remember that if my characters ever seem shallow, it’s because I haven’t looked at them deeply enough and found the experiences that make them real.