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.