Every family has a keeper of the box. It’s often the eldest child, or the only girl, or the one interested in genealogy. The box can be literal or figurative, but there is always a box.
My husband and I are both only children. The boxes handed down to us from our mothers have no other home. My mother-in-law didn’t believe in keeping what she called “old stuff,” things like family documents, photos, etc. She kept a few, but not enough to reconstruct the history of his family.
My mother kept tons on documents, photos, report cards. I found information on land I didn’t know the family owned, land lost to unpaid taxes. Photo albums with lots of pictures of people who have gone ahead and have not left their names behind. Legal papers. Ticket stubs. She kept so much of my childhood that I haven’t taken time to unpack it.
As writers, we are all keeps of our characters’ boxes. To create a complete character, we need to know ever so much more that we will ever use. We need to know what each character, main and minor, looks like. That means small details like the shape of ears, small scars and other marks. We should know what a female carries in her handbag, a man in his pockets. Where do they put their keys? Do they empty handbags or pockets every night? What is on their dressers, in their medicine cabinets? Do they floss?
You’ll never use these details, because in real life they are both automatic and boring. But, if you know these things, you know your characters. And then you can throw these minutiae away and get on with the story.
At times, however, one or more of these details demands to be unpacked and imagined. When did the item, if it is literal, enter the character’s life? What’s its importance to the plot? Can you avoid writing about it, or will you miss an opportunity to enrich the story with just the right detail at just the right moment.
Take for example, a concert ticket stub. Did the character attend the concert alone? With a best friend? With a long-lost love? What emotions go through the character’s mind when she holds that stub in her hand? How can you exploit the moment to illustrate something bigger?
Yes, families are the keepers of the box. Writers are as well, because our characters constitute our other families. What boxes do you have packed away? And how many of them have you unpacked?