by Toni L.P. Kelner
I didn't do a whole lot of writing this past week. Instead, I was planning and plotting the massive undertaking that it is to get two daughters ready to go back to school. And like most writers, my favorite part of the process is shopping for school supplies. Who could possibly resist all those rows of pens, which have to be tested to see how they write; spiral notebooks, waiting to be filled with ideas and story outlines; and the never-ending variety of yellow stickies, which can only help to solve the ills of mankind. Even those lovely boxes of crayons draw me in--har!
As I left my happy place, meaning the office supplies store, I realized that we'd bought more than just backpacks and lunch boxes and college ruled notebook paper. We'd bought characterizations. The girls had just defined themselves for the year.
The most visible sign for any kid is the backpack, and the choices are nearly endless. Does she pick a celebrity like Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers? Did she proclaim a love of High School Musical or Camp Rock? A character like Speed Racer or Barbie? A solid color, with or without initials? Camouflage? Sports figures? Is it a rolling bag, and does it have space for an iPod? Is Pokemon still in, out, or retro? Would Dora the Explorer skew too young? Any of these choices tell you something about the kid.
For the record, my girls went for the following, with cute, happy skull and poodle motifs. Maggie's is on the left, Valerie's on the right.
The next big choice is the folders and notebooks. My newly turned teenager Maggie continued with skull patterns, but nearly ten-year-old Valerie went with shiny purple hearts and cute puppies. We ended up with a spare cute kitten notebook, and Maggie did indeed need a notebook, but the look she gave me when I suggested she take the kittens was remarkably eloquent.
On a lesser scale, there are the colors of pencils and lunchboxes to blend with the backpacks and even the book covers. But when you put all those pieces together, you end up with a picture of who Maggie and Valerie are, just as when a writer puts an outfit on a character or equip him with computers and/or weapons, the reader ends up with a picture of that character.
This thought led me to a couple of characters I've recently created. First there's Tilda, the protagonist of Without Mercy. In the first chapter of the book, I mention her Jack Skellington watch, the black messenger bag she uses as a purse, and her Addams Family theme ringtone. I'm expecting the reader to take all that and see her as a fan of quirky popular culture, and maybe just a bit on the goth side. And that's who she is. I could have used those same character bits, and then gone against expectations to describe her as blonde and perky or ultra-businesslike. Either way, the character is defined.
Then there's William Cunningham Ward, the lawyer protagonist in my pirate mystery short story "The Pirate's Debt." A big part of the story revolves around a plain, brown coat that William was given by his father. William despises the thing, which reveals a lot about him, his father, and the man who ends up with that coat.
I don't always use belongings to define a character. In my Laura Fleming books, I rarely write about clothes, accessories, and such. Her clothes and pocketbook weren't a big deal to her. Of course, now that I think of it, making that kind of information unimportant to Laura says quite a bit about her.
One last thought occurred to me as I made sure all the notebooks and pencils were packed in the girls' backpacks. Kids redefine their characters every year, as they grow. Sure, Maggie went in for skulls this year, but I remember the Spy Kids and Pokemon backpacks from a few years back. (It wasn't that long ago that she wanted cute kittens on her notebook.) Those changes make life interesting for a parent. Characters can change, too, and that's a good way to keep their lives interesting for readers.