Last weekend my family came for a visit. I have five nieces and nephews—all under the age of seven—so family visits incite as much joy as they do utter exhaustion and chaos. They also provide me with a lot of subjects for study: family interactions, child development, and the basic tenets of humanity (or how babies, technically, are different from dogs). This weekend, as the happily unmarried and blissfully childless aunt, naturally I spent the whole time observing and internally critiquing my siblings’ parenting skills.
While the intricacies of those critiques can be petty, one thing I noticed was the way in which parents shape the stories of their children’s lives. My twin nieces just reached the one-year mark on wobbly, bowed out legs, and already they have their own stories. MJ is the quiet observer, she likes to sit and watch, take the world in with her big, round eyes; Ceci is a little gymnast, crawling and climbing and terrorizing whatever she can find (including the cat’s litter box—blech!). MJ is calm and careful; she likes music and dancing. Ceci is rough and strong, a tomboy all the way.
I struggled with this deterministic characterization all weekend. It’s so easy, and as a writer it’s rather fun, to categorize and characterize and compare, to imagine what all these little beings will be when they become complex and experienced adults. At the same time, I recognized how tenuous the role of parent can be. Parents are the keepers of their children’s stories until they are old enough to take control themselves, but at the same time there is a danger in being the story keeper, in forcing the character, in placing too many expectations and in so doing inviting the equivalent limitations. When you consistently compliment only a child’s skills in math or running, you are also, in a way, telling them they are not good at other things like music or dance; your ideas and personal preferences get transferred to your child and their story becomes narrowed.
In her wonderful treatise on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a chapter on character in which she discusses the importance of knowing your characters:
“…each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways. One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in?” (Lamott 45).
She stresses the importance of a fully fleshed out character, even if not all of that information, not all of the things growing in the character’s emotional acre, make it into the book or the story or the poem. By having a complete physical and emotional picture of your character in your mind, you are one step closer to having a more realistic and compelling character on the page.
However, just as I, the completely unqualified crazy aunt, am concerned about the effects of over characterization, so too is Lamott. She ends her chapter on character with a complete and cautionary reversal:
“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple” (Lamott 53).
Characters, like children, are meant to surprise; they are meant to disappoint, to astonish. Sometimes I look back on the writing I’ve done and wonder: Are all of my characters the same? Where is my diversity in personality? It’s so easy, in attempting to know are characters, in trying so hard to make them come alive and feel real, to become an overbearing parent of a writer. But as writers, we are not creating miniature versions of ourselves, we are raising our own fictitious children, and like parents, we must find the perfect balance between guiding, shaping, directing and stepping back, watching, and listening. We can imagine and cultivate our character’s emotional acres, but at some point we must be willing to let them grow and see what happens.