In Which My Toddler Helps Me Think Of “Character” In A New Way

Our son, the one we call “B-Dub,” thinks of the people in his life abstractly.

Example: if he sees a magazine ad featuring the car you drive, he’ll point to it and say your name. If he sees a spot on the floor where one of the dogs likes to lie down, he’ll say that dog’s name. But it can be even more abstract, to the point where it takes us time to figure out what the connection is —  like it’s a little bit of a puzzle. He pointed to a picture at one point of very grungy, work-dirty hands and said, “Pop-Pop,” and it’s not like his grandfather is some kind of filth-caked, rail-riding hobo. But — but — his Pop-Pop is in fact often working outside. In the literal sense, he’s frequently getting his hands dirty.

Sometimes it’ll be a color. Or an image. Or a sound.

But he’ll associate people with things both concrete and abstract.

And I thought, what a darling way to help us writery-types conceive of character.

We’re used to writing out descriptions of character — we may in our notes list a series of traits (selfish, two kids, has a pet monkey despite being allergic to monkey bites, is a zombie, obsessed with Law & Order: SVU). But it’s interesting to instead — or, more appropriately, in addition to — conjure a series of images that call to mind that character for you.

Say, ten images. Or however many you need to find the character in there.

A cigarette burning on a porch rail.

A copy of a 1970s-era MAD magazine. Shoes with clayey mud clinging to the treads.

A cup of coffee so lightened with cream it might as well be milk.

A monkey bite on the Achilles’ heel.

An infected nipple that looks like a human face.

Whatever, etcetera, blah blah blah.

Some of the images can be literal. Some more figurative or at the least more distant from the character’s actual present-day existence. What do the images mean? What do they say about the character?

Show, Don’t Tell is a piece of advice that’s mostly right and occasionally very wrong, but we generally think of it in terms of the end result — we put the practice into the prose. But here it we could put the practice into the practice, meaning, we can show ourselves rather than tell ourselves all the little pieces that go into the stories we want to share. It’s a good way to think visually and abstractly instead of textually and literally.

Hell, you could even cut images out of magazines and hang them on a corkboard.

I have a corkboard in my office.

Of course, it’s covered in images cut out from TIGER BEAT magazine.

Don’t judge me.

Don’t you dare judge me.

I guess it’s time to take down my spread of sexy Star Trek boy-toy, Wil Wheaton.