Writing is like being able to put life into a snow globe. It takes the things that are too big and scary and reduces them into a form that I can put away when I want and look at from a distance. It also takes all that’s good in life and captures it into something I can take out when I want and look at close up and keep forever. It makes the bad things into something I can hold…and the good things into something I can hold onto. Both help so much that I need that little souvenir of life.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Improper Poll: Father May I Have More Characters

Last Friday, Lisa Ricard Claro made a comment about my character who avoided marriage because her father had told her that men were evil. Where I grew up there really was a little retired schoolteacher in my neighborhood I’ll call Miss Amelia Plimpton (name has been changed, but not much). Miss Plimpton lived in a huge, historic home all by herself and had never married due to her father’s dire warnings about men.

The irony wasn’t lost on children, even.

I know about her reasoning because my mom was into taking “poor old souls” under her wing. Apparently there was a long list of things that “Father” found dangerous, but another memorable one was left-hand turns. My mother tried taking Miss Plimpton to the doctor, but driving trips had to be plotted at length and executed with enormous care in order to avoid the dreaded left-hand turns. It’s an understatement to say that when my mom returned from outings with Miss Plimpton, she looked rattled.

At times like that that, my dad brought on the Miss Plimpton impression. “Oh horrors, Father always said that toilets were dangerous because you might slip and fall in, so I use coffee cans, but only the slow roast, because Father didn’t like instant….” And my mom would do that thing where she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or scold, so she did both: “Oh hush!”

Miss Plimpton was far from the only unusual person in that neighborhood. Maybe it’s because I grew up with so many, but once I reached a certain age, I started attracting characters. And that’s okay with me.

If I got on a city bus and there were two seats left, one next to a businessman immersed in his laptop and one next to a woman wearing a garbage bag over her clothes and an aluminum foil hat, more often than not I would choose the foil-hat-lady as long as she looked harmless and I didn’t have anything pressing I needed to do during the ride. I told that to a friend once, and she clearly thought I was very strange. But what an opportunity!

Did you grow up with weird characters? And do you think they helped shape you as a writer? Which one would you sit next to on the bus?


  1. Thanks for the mention. :) Unfortunately, I don't recall any larger-than-life characters like your Ms. Plimpton. Whether I had a childhood deprived of interesting characters or was simply too self-absorbed to notice, I can't say. Where would I choose to sit on the bus? Wherever I might observe the most people without appearing rude. :)

  2. I grew up in a family of weird characters, and not in a good way, I might add.

    One was an aunt who left the Christmas tree up with all the gifts spred out around it until well into spring. In later years, she became an alcoholic and an extreme hoarder, who had only one tiny path from her front door to other rooms in her house.

    When I was young, I thought she was fun. I soon learned that she had some pretty vile and disgusting habits regarding her son, which I won't mention here.

    In Oro Valley, there is a woman who walks down the main drag every day wearing fancy square-dance clothes and carrying a frilly umbrella. I would love to sit next to her on a bus, but she never takes one!!!

  3. Fascinating post, Tammy.
    There were characters in town when I grew up, and I knew several of them, but none stands out like your Miss Plimpton.
    My father was eccentric, therefore my mother became eccentric-by-association, whereas she had just been fun and slightly zany before.
    As for sitting on a bus, I think I'd pick the absorbed businessman who wouldn't speak to me. My husband, and both of my brothers, would probably pick the lady in the tinfoil hat.

    —Kay, Alberta, Canada

  4. With me, it's not a matter of who I would sit next to on the bus. It's more of a matter of which one I can guarantee would sit next to me!

  5. We had Miss Fling, the substitute teacher who looked like Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Even now, when I picture Miss Fling, I swear she's wearing a pointy hat. She had black hair and a hooked nose, and an accent not like ours. We were scared to death of her, not a little because she was prone to say things like, "You can't fool me, you little smarties!"

    One day when she substituted for the art teacher, we had an unexpected snowstorm. When several kids went to the windows to look out, she sneered, "What's a matter, you people never seen snow before?" Kind of scary to 4th graders.

  6. In a couple of neighborhoods (like the Loop and CWE) there was Baton Bob---a very tall man who loved to wear quite creative ensembles. For example, he would put together a short wedding dress and drum majorette boots. He would have his own personal "parade" on a weekly basis until hate-filled people gave him such grief, he moved to another state. No more Baton Bob.

    Closer to home, I had a third grade teacher names Mrs. Andes. She had snow white hair and a face as red as an apple. Michael Dunlap and the rest of the hooligans in the class gave her a nervous breakdown. (We ate our lunch in our classroom, and all the unrulies would throw pieces of their bologna up onto the ceiling where it would---magically--stick. Day after day after day.) Mrs. Andes left in the middle of the winter. That was a year full of learning.

    Even closer to home, I have a sister-in-law who does not believe in bras or shoes. If the place requires shoes, she doesn't need to go there.

    I think writers--most of us---are drawn to oddballs. We have a curious mind by nature, we want to see if we can use them in a future story/blog, we are fascinated by characters.

  7. OMG, ROFL; did I? And that was you sitting by me on the bus? Why didn't I recognize you?

    I am a character all by myself, which means I DO attract the strange and it's okay with me too! :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  8. Lisa, your character-deprivation certainly didn't harm your creativity any, so there goes that theory.

    Judie and Kay, I've found most writers grew up with one eccentric relative at the very least. Or maybe we're just more likely to talk about it?!

    Mama Zen, I think that says wonderful things about you!

    Val, I didn't know whether to laugh or be horrified, so I've been alternating between the two. And "little smarties" isn't too far off from "little pretties," either! :-o

    Sioux, I'm so sorry to hear that a more character-tolerant state inherited Baton Bob. And poor red-faced Mrs. Andes! I shudder to think of that bologna-covered ceiling.

    Jules, you make me laugh so hard, I would shove people out of the way in order to sit next to you on the bus!

  9. Unusual characters not only make a story more interesting, but they spice up real life, too. How boring would life be without them?



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