Observing people is an important part of creating characters. I do it constantly, but not deliberately, it’s just part of my nature. Every stranger I watch for more than a few minutes, everybody I know and spend time with, even people in audiences, contribute to my stock of character traits. Characters are not the way they cut their hair, the way they dress, or even their position in life, their history, or their backgrounds, though those can greatly influence who they are. Readers aren’t interested in most of that anyway.
What’s important when portraying characters is how people talk, how they move, how they stand or sit or walk. These traits can remain constant for most of their lives, from mid teens till nearly when they die. Disease, accidents, and senility, of course, make radical changes. We all know people who are “not themselves.”
It isn’t often that we get to observe people after a great span of years, to see how they still are who they are, and how they have changed. But it is those whom we see infrequently who are able to give the insights the writer needs for characters. That which remains unchanged after years, or decades, is the core of the person, the most important part.
We got up at four in the morning Thursday (April 27) so we could catch a plane to Dallas/Fort Worth, and from there to Ontario, California, for college reunions — my 50th, Diane’s 45th, and Darcy’s 10th. We got there about two in the afternoon. The weather was perfect, there were lots of memories, lots of classmates to talk to, some decent food, and despite the changes to the campus, it was still Pomona College.
One time, several years ago, someone told me, “You can’t really go back, it’s not the same as it was.” He was both right and wrong. There were new buildings and faculty and landscaping, but it was still Pomona. I think of my father when I was a kid, and I think of him toward the end of his life. The differences are profound, and extreme. But he was still my father.
Everybody seemed to have accomplished a lot in the last fifty years. Law, medicine, real estate, astronomy, physics and chem and bio, and government, and many had received recognition for their contributions in one area or another.
And then there was me. I was the only one, I believe, who had a full-time career in writing fiction. Not serious fiction, like one of the faculty, but science fiction, fantasy, and weird stuff. When people asked me, I told them about some of the books I had written, the projects I’m working on now, and I had to admit that I was not famous or successful, and that writing was only half my job. The other half was household management, that is, doing the things my mother did when I was a kid, while Diane does what my father did, which is to make a living for us.
We left Pomona about eleven Sunday morning, and because of terrible weather in Dallas, we didn’t get home until after supper on Monday, and I’m still recovering.
The whole experience was valuable to me as a writer, as it has been, every five years since my 25th. People grow older — the lucky ones do — and change, sometimes a lot. But they are still the people I knew. Some aged well, others not so well, but who they were as people remained more or less the same. I could recognize them from a distance by the way they moved. I could look at a face and see, behind a mask of fifty years, the face I once knew.
The Perfessor, in the comic strip Shoe, said one time, “My body may be seventy three, but it’s still me in there.”
This is very useful to me, as a writer of fiction. I need to be able to create, or discover, characters who have the full fourth dimension of time, whether it be just a few weeks or fifty years. Seeing both the change and the continuity at the same time adds dimension. I don’t portray older characters as stereotypically older. I strive to portray them as they are, at their core, carrying the weight of their experience.
Someone once asked me if I ever wanted to be twenty five again. I said that I wouldn’t mind having the strength and vigor and flexibility, but I would never want to give up the experience and growth. I can see the college students in my classmates, but fifty years have made them wiser, stronger, more interesting, and a lot more fun to be with. My characters will benefit from what I have learned.