by Kelley Lindberg
I just got back from a visit to Reality Town, where I got to be random and dole out chance happenings, good or bad, to every resident of Reality Town.
I only bankrupted a couple of them, so I call it a good day.
It was the annual Reality Town program at my son’s junior high school, where each of them is assigned a career (based on their GPA), a life situation (married, divorced, number of kids, etc.), and a salary. Then they are given a fake checkbook and a list of booths they must visit. Somehow, they have to stretch their monthly salaries to pay for everything they need at the booths, such as child care, health insurance, housing, utilities, clothing, and medical care. If they have anything left over, they can visit the entertainment booth, the home improvement booth, and so on.
I was working the “Just My Luck” booth, where kids had to select a card from my stack of Life’s Random Events. Some drew cards like “Buy soccer cleats for your child; pay $40” or “You have to buy new tires for $100.” Others drew cards that said “You hold a garage sale and make $50” or “You cleaned the couch and found $5.”
Each kid approached my booth with trepidation. As they drew a card, almost all would wince, as if the very motion of pulling a card from the fanned-out stack were painful. Many kids said things like, “With my luck, my house will burn down.” Sure enough, as most of them read their cards, their shoulders would droop and they’d moan or sigh, because many of the cards were unfortunate. (Although none of them suffered from house fires, I’m happy to say.)
The funniest reactions were the kids whose cards were positive, however. They didn’t trust the good cards. They would show the cards to me, puzzled, as if they couldn’t believe they were actually supposed to add money to their checking ledger, instead of subtracting it. After all, they’d been subtracting money all morning for all the things they were learning they needed in “the real world.”
How quickly they’d become jaded, disillusioned, and discouraged. How quickly they’d succumbed to adulthood. More than one kid lamented, “Reality sucks.”
Yeah, kid, it does sometimes.
But then, every once in a while, it doesn’t. And just like those kids in the program today, sometimes we adults nearly miss the good stuff. We’re so busy digging ourselves in and out of holes that we mistrust the good things that sometimes fall our way.
Reality Town got me thinking about characters. When we’re writing characters, we’re often told to pile misfortune onto them, to ratchet up the stakes, to shove them out of their comfort zone. Get ’em up a tree, then throw rocks at ’em. Then surround the tree with wolves. Then light the tree on fire. That sort of thing.
But when was the last time you handed something good to your character, and how did he or she react? Did he/she mistrust it? Did she question it? Did he feel guilty about it and try to hide it?
These kids today got a taste of reality and didn’t much care for it. If a half-hour of reality can disillusion a hundred eighth graders, imagine what a decade or two (or five) of it can do to your protagonist.
And how much sweeter a victory must be if it has to overcome all that disillusionment.
So the next time you’re doing one of those personality quizzes for your character or sketching out their backstory, add one more question to your analysis (this week’s writing prompt):
How does your character react when something good comes their way?