Last weekend my daughter and I took a road trip. A good friend of mine was celebrating his fortieth birthday. This friend, Paul, is someone I’ve known my entire life; his parents are my parents’ best friends. He and his younger brother, and my younger brother and I, were pretty much raised as siblings. Cousins at the very least.
It’s a strange thing, having these cousin-brothers that I don’t see very often. Whitby and Ottawa aren’t exactly next door. Still, we get together when we can, and I’m always struck by the way it’s a strange blend of knowing someone very well and not knowing them at all.
I have only the vaguest idea of what Paul does at work, for example. I know that he goes in very late (he never did mornings) and stays late. I know he’s crazy-smart and works with computers. But I don’t know who his friends are there, or what matters to him most about his job, or what he would change if he could.
I’ve met a few of his friends over the years. He’s met a few of mine. But we don’t talk about them much, and I don’t know how they fit into the jigsaw-puzzle of his life and relationships. Not the way I do with my real brother.
But we were kids together, and that’s a different kind of knowing. I know what makes him laugh, and what jokes not to make. I know the house he grew up in as well as I know my own. I know what computer games they had, and the shade of the shag carpet in the living room. There was a pole in the basement, supporting one of the roof beams, and it was close enough to the open-sided stairs that we could grab onto it and swing down. Like ninjas. I know that his mom stocked skim milk in the fridge, and his father makes wicked scrambled eggs. I know him with mullet-hair, and he knows me with braces and glasses.
So maybe there’s a kid-Paul in there somewhere, and that’s the person I know. We don’t really get rid of our kid selves, we just add layers on top.
Sometimes I think that’s how I know my characters. I don’t fill in fact sheets for them, not unless I have to. I don’t do personality quizzes for them, or draw family trees. So I couldn’t always tell you what my character’s favourite colour is, or even his middle name. But I have a sense of who he is, underneath, and I work out the rest as I need it. The way you learn about a person by spending time with her, but that initial connection can happen quickly.
Layers matter too. Our experience matters, and informs the choices we make. But it’s the person underneath who matters most.
And Paul, if you read this–you’ll always be one of my favourite real-life characters. 😉 Happy 40th!