My sister Patty called today and said she was running to KFC to grab a bucket of chicken and sides, and what if she brought them to our house for a late lunch? The hub and I love fried chicken, but I never make it. I make more chicken recipes than any woman should, but frying a whole, cut-up one always seems like a lot of work to me, so I avoid it. Having a bucket of it delivered to my door, though? That was sort of like having the heavens smile on me. So, of course, I said yes.
My cousin, Jenny, lives with Patty and came, too. Once we finally all got settled and dug into the food, the usual flow of conversation began. There’s nothing like family to sort out recent happenings, old stories, and new gossip. Family remembers the time Patty thought her hair was too greasy, so I washed it for her with Comet cleanser. It took my mom a month to get all of the green powder gunk out of her hair. That led to the time Patty wanted her hair teased for the biggest updo she’d ever had and went to the prom looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. And then Patty remembered my false eyelash phase and the time I took them off and left them on the sink top and Mom thought they were a spider and flushed them down the toilet.
The hub and I have friends that go back years and years, too. John and Scott buddied up in second grade and are still BFFs. He’s known a lot of his friends since high school, and every time one of them marries, the wife becomes part of the “group.” When all of us get together, the talk often goes back to the old days when the guys worked together at a little hamburger drive-in near Packard Park and the girls’ softball games.
When I start a new book (like I am now), once I have the hook and the big question the plot hangs on, I usually write a chapter to see and hear my characters, and then I make character wheels to flesh them out. And one of the first things on each character wheel is the character’s family. What was the mom’s name? What does she look like? Did she work? What job? What kind of personality did she have? Any habits? Did she and the character get along? Any special memories?
My mom was a wonderful cook, but she always shooed us out of the kitchen, so when I married my hub, I had no idea how to boil a potato, let alone brown a pork chop. I’m always jealous of my friends who learned special family recipes by cooking with their mom or grandma while they were growing up.
I repeat the same questions for my character’s dad, any brothers and sisters, and any relatives that influenced him/her. Did the son tinker with cars in his dad’s garage? My dad raised chickens, and it was my job to gather the eggs and feed them every morning. My mom hated the sound of the recorder when I had to learn to play it in school and made me practice it in the chicken coop. Luckily, the chickens weren’t music critiques and seemed to enjoy it. Often, once I see my character through his family’s eyes and how he sees them, it helps me understand what motivates him and why.
After I scribble out his family background, then I work on his education. Did he graduate high school? College? Trade school? Did he like school or loathe it? My grandson had serious ADD/ADHD and school was an every day torment for him. Was my character popular or a loner? And what did he do once he grew up? Escape as fast as he could or stick close to home? Then I scribble out where he lives and what kind of vehicle he drives. And finally, I list two friends and how he gets along with them. Are they old friends or new? Did he lose any old friends and how? Any romantic interests presently or in the past? And then I list someone he doesn’t like and it’s mutual–an antagonist (in his life) or a villain. By the time I finish all of those, I have a pretty good feel for my character and what shaped him.
If it’s true that no one goes unscathed by family (for better or worse) and friends are the family we choose, there’s a lot of rich history and drama, along with memories, before a character steps onto our pages.
Wherever you are on whatever project you’re working on now, happy writing!