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Friendly Characters

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

I don’t remember having “imaginary friends” per se when growing up, but I do remember that I preferred to play alone because it was too hard to try to explain what I was imagining to others.

What’s got me thinking about childhood friends? Well, I’m in the middle of editing a book that’s a compilation of poems and essays about Friendship. In discussing some of the pieces included with the associate editor, she and I naturally started reminiscing about childhood friends. This is always a melancholy subject for me.

Until sixth grade, I don’t really remember having any friends. I mean, I would play basketball, football, soccer, softball, or any other seasonal sport with Greel, the boy my age who lived across the street, but I can’t say he and I were ever “friends.” I never really knew how to make friends . . . until in sixth grade, I met Jill, a girl with an imagination as vivid as my own. We liked the same TV shows and movies (her dad camped out the night before to be third in line for us to see Return of the Jedi on opening night at the one theater in our small city that was showing it). We understood how swings on the playground could become Pegasus, the flying horse. We made up characters to become.

I spent that summer, as I did every summer at my grandparents’ home—over one thousand miles away. We might have exchanged a couple of letters, but I don’t really remember. When I returned home, my parents had transferred me to a small, private school since I had not performed well academically in the public school. We also moved all the way across town. Jill and I lost touch and never saw each other again.

I’ve “lost” many other friends over the years—either due to the shallowness of the relationship or the time, distance, or circumstances that have separated us. When I think of these friends, while I can clearly picture times spent together, what I most remember are their qualities—the essence of why I was friends with them in the first place.

Amy, my best friend in college, was compassionate and caring, tenderhearted and emotional (to my untouchableness and repressed emotions). Todd was passionate—about football and about Jesus (his catch-phrase was “God Rules”) . . . and had a questionable sense of fashion (red polo shirt with aqua shorts coming immediately to mind, early 1990s not withstanding). Brad was a gentle giant, a seeker, soft-spoken yet with a sharp sense of humor I adored. Kevin was, for about ten years, a soul mate. He understood me in ways no one else ever has—or possibly ever will. Yvonne was a leader, a mentor, who pushed me out of my comfort zone.

These are just a few of the many people who have influenced my life. I haven’t seen any of them in years, and may never see them again. But I carry a little bit of each one of them around with me.

And this eventually works its way into my writing. In a way, the characters I write become tributes to those people who have shared my walk—whether for a brief season or for years and years. The qualities I saw in others that I didn’t possess before became part of me because of that friendship; and through me, these essences live on in my characters.

When our friends are gathered near us, it brings us a sense of fulfillment—like all of the pieces of a puzzle fitting together. When we write well-rounded, three-dimensional characters, we feel this same fulfillment.

So, as I look back at friends past and recall that essence, that lasting impression, I must ask myself: what is the essence, the lasting impression of my characters I want my readers to take away with them when they finish reading my story.

I want them to see Major’s gentle heart, love for others, and passion for cooking; Meredith’s innate need to feel loved and intense desire to be more than just someone defined by her social anxiety disorder—while acting as counselor for everyone around her.

Pretend for a moment your character is real and you want to introduce him or her to another friend, and were trying to describe his or her best qualities in one or two sentences, how would you do it?

  1. Georgiana D permalink
    Tuesday, March 6, 2007 11:51 pm

    WOW! GREAT POST! I’ll really have to think about this one–how would I introduce Molly to someone else?

    I love thinking about what impression I want my characters to leave, the same way certain friends have left impressions on my life.

    I don’t have any good sentences yet, but my wheels are turning!


  2. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Wednesday, March 7, 2007 1:11 pm

    Wow! As Georgiana said, great post!

    I’ll pick Kurt (as Georgiana picked out in her crits, I think he’s my favorite in Drums).

    Kurt is compassionate, rather far seeing, easy going, wants to do God’s will and is patient enough to let God reveal it in His own time.


  3. Friday, March 16, 2007 1:17 am

    I wonder how many writers had a similar childhood. I remember having at most one friend at a time, and, as this is a military town, losing them one after the other. I have one friend in-town who was here when we were elementary students.

    It makes it too easy, I think, for authors to over-isolate their MCs (Anne McCaffery is awful like this). I was so struck by the positive supporting characters in McKinley’s Beauty that I wrote a post about it.

    It seems you don’t find a well-supported protagonist very often. (Maybe I’m just not reading broadly enough?)


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