Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Spin Doctor

This weekend my mom celebrated her 90th birthday.  I am so happy that I was able to celebrate this milestone with her. 

Ninety years packs a lot of memories.  During the time I was able to spend with her, I realized that some of her clearest memories are also the oldest. She showed me a faded blanket that a boy (not my dad) in the Civilian Conservation Corps won for her at a carnival. She hid it from her mother at the time.  The CCCs were part of President Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. The boys of the CCC had Sundays off and went to church to meet girls.  My father and his friend walked my mom and my aunt home on Sundays until grandpa drove up beside them and told the girls to 'get in.'

Let's say I created a character based on my mom.  Her life history would mold her desires, disappointments and perspective, and would change over the course of her life, at least in part, based on her experiences. It would be inevitable.  She has lived through the Depression, World War II, the Korean war, the Cold war, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, the Cuban missile crisis and Watergate.  She saw two new states added to the Union.  She listened to 'The Shadow' on the radio, played Sinatra on a hi-fi, watched Ed Sullivan on a black and white RCA, saw Star Wars on the big screen and Martha Stewart on a flatscreen.  The Berlin wall went up and came back down. Hemlines went up - and up - and came back down. Natural disasters, man-made disasters, massacres and nuclear accidents both moved and frightened her. The race to conquer space ended in a draw. 

Technology moves her forward, but as John Maynard Keynes points out, "The ideas of people in current leadership positions are always those they took in during their youth."  Both her past and her future influence how she sees the world and her responses to it. What seems noble and good at one point in her life may lose its meaning or substance later. She may hold to the values of her youth or see things differently. Or she may stray and return to them.

When we create a character, we consider her circumstances, but also the mindset she may have had when she experienced them.  For example, a multi-cultural neighborhood in a book set in the 60s would have different issues than one set in the 80s or again in 2012.  Also, what may be viewed as an entitlement in one decade may seem wrong in another.

On the everyday side of a contemporary setting, she might punch the number into a phone instead of dialing, order chai instead of coffee, purchase only organic food and take her own grocery bags with her to the store.  She would definitely pump her own gas.  She might only pay by debit card, but she might also have trouble remembering her pin number.  If a story has an aging character -of whatever age - even though it is a contemporary story, the character's past will be reflected in his or her responses, choices and interpretations.

Do you have a character who has lived long enough to put a different spin on an event or problem? We'd like to hear.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh. This is so timely! My current WIP revolves around a woman in her mid-eighties. I can't tell you too much else about her...I'm too afraid that if I share it will slip away before I've really written her.

Very helpful post, Debbie! Thank you so much!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Susie. I'm also working on a story with an aging main character. We live quite a distance from our extended family so I don't interact daily with an elderly person but spending this time with my mom gave me deeper insight about her battle to remain independent. Talking with her on the phone is one thing, but seeing her daily struggle is another. One thing is certain - the quiet strength of her youth has blossomed into raw determination in her elder years.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, I was talking to my husband about the injustice of how men age so much better (seriously, the man just gets more and more handsome every year). I told him that as women get older, our exterior beauty fades a little. Becomes a little invisible.

He's so good...this is what he said...

"Then the beauty within them will show through even more."


Isn't that lovely?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

He's a keeper, Susie!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

My main character brings his Mum along for the adventure. Their home planet tells time differently from their present world so she struggles with being 75 in one and 120 in another. "Trust a scientist (correcting an anomaly) to stab at a woman's vanity." She also remembers, with her finger stirring the preserving cream, how as a child she just flopped into bed, as a youth she added a little read, as a young mother she added a soak in the bath and lately it's just been pills and creams. She is also a priestess and physician and vacillates between inflated ambition/pride and disappointment in her son. I enjoy her company.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Henrietta, she sounds like a very interesting character. I think the 75/120 challenge would be both heartening and heartbreaking, depending on which space she inhabited. I see why you enjoy her.

Kathleen Popa said...

Debbie, this is so well written, and you're so right. We see things very differently as the world changes, and as we change. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, this is such a good post. Experience adds a depth and richness to our lives, and to the lives of our characters as well. I love the story of the carnival blanket. What treasures of knowledge and experience your mom harbors. I'm so glad you were able to celebrate her 90th birthday together with your family.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I've been thinking of my family. We are late bloomers. At the age of 70 my grandfather was running an "old age home" and complaining about the people younger than him who had just given up. He died at 98, still active on boards of education and civic planning.
In my daughter's life, at age 16 she is pressured to make momentous decisions. I try to give her some perspective. It doesn't all have to be done NOW.

Lori Benton said...

"She would definitely pump her own gas."

Unless she lived in Oregon. I confess it's been so long since I pumped my own gas I've forgotten how to do it.

These are issues I try to bear in mind when creating historical characters. To write a character living in 1787, I have to research as much as I can about the issues and events that would have affected her, molded her, in the decades prior to that. So I end up learning a lot of history, and often find the kernel of another story buried in that background research.

My grandfather was part of the CCC. I have some old photos of him and his friends from that era. Thanks for reminding me of that, and him.