Sunday, February 3, 2019

Your Character's Stuff Tells a Story

 I used to follow "The Minimalists" On Facebook, a community based on downsizing your life, living more simply through fewer possessions, less debt, and more time with people and pursuits that matter to you. On the weekend before Valentine's day, The Minimalists posted several anti-consumerist posts. All of them made the point that giving gifts was ultimately a destructive practice, that it is not a love language, but rather a habit. They also said giving diamonds is not giving love, but rather ostentatious overspending. Sounds pretty reasonable for people who adhere to minimalism, right? But holy heavens, the comments section.

There were accusations of Communism, of misogyny, of ingratitude. And these were not one-sentence rebukes. These commenters were MAD. It makes you wonder about such an extreme reaction from people who signed up to the page. Ultimately, it's because human beings consistently underestimate our attachment to stuff.
This is especially true for authors. We can spend pages talking about our characters' physical appearance, right down to the exact shade of green their eyes are. But we barely glance at their possessions (except maybe millionaire bad boy fiction). This is missing a big opportunity for character development.

Americans, in particular, love our stuff. We define ourselves by our belongings.

These are not just things we own. These things ARE us. Don't believe me? Flip to HGTV or DIY sometime and watch one of those tiny house shows. In order for the show participants to move from their current abode to their tiny house (under 600 square feet), they have to do extreme downsizing on their possessions.
Now we get to watch the freakout when it comes time to get rid of their stuff. We can examine how each person—the husband, wife, and sometimes, kids—chooses different hills to die on. Mom NEEDS all these shoes; she couldn't possibly do without any of them. Dad NEEDS his guitars, all of them, though his band days are far behind him. We'll forgive the children because, well, they're children.
It's easy to judge people for this attachment to possessions. We all value different things. I will scoff at anyone's attachment to a piece of clothing or a handbag. But I once jumped into a dumpster to retrieve a twenty-year-old stuffed animal with holes in it. 
After I got married, I figured the time had come to get rid of my two remaining stuffed animals, both of which I'd had I was three. "Monk" was a chimpanzee puppet with a long-since broken squeaker function. He was in good enough shape that I gave him to my niece and nephew, who love him immensely to this day.  The other one was "Pola," a stuffed polar bear with some holes and generally not robust enough to handle the affections of toddlers. So I thought I'd throw him away. It was hard, but I knew it was the correct thing. The adult thing.
An hour after I threw him in my apartment complex's dumpster, I was standing in other people's garbage, looking for my stuffed bear. I found him, I brought him home, and I washed him. He sits on the bed in my guest bedroom to this day. People saw me in that dumpster and asked me if I was okay. These were my neighbors, folks I would have to see on a regular basis. But I didn't care. I cared about Pola, my stuffed bear... my friend.
The things people value can tell you a lot about them, both in your writing and in your life. For me, the stuffed bear was just about the only constant in my life. We moved every two to three years until I was fifteen. So no lifelong friends for me. I have my family... and I have a dirty, worn stuffed polar bear my mother got me in Korea. I crave stability, tradition, and loyalty. And I will cut you if you try to throw out my VHS of Tiny Toons: How I Spent my Summer Vacation. Even though I no longer own a VCR.
So look closely at the people you create in your writing. Which of their possessions do they value beyond its actual worth? And why do you think that is? You'd be amazed how much insight you can get from such a small detail.

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