Although this post is about character traits (in a roundabout way), first let me tell you a story to help it make sense.
So, should a character be brutally honest? BY ALL MEANS!
I wear many hats, but first and foremost, I am a mother. And as every mother does, I love to tell stories and drag out the family albums every chance I get. I’m proud. Even when they aren’t behaving like the people I’ve raised them to be, I’m still proud. While they were growing up, I did my best to instill values, integrity, and ethics. I taught them to be true to themselves, to be the kind of friend they’d like to have in their own lives, to be tolerant, non-judgmental, and above all else, I taught them to be honest. Though, I have to admit, they’ve given me plenty of reasons to rethink the whole honestly thing.
The year was 1996. We lived on a farm and were regularly adding to our array of animals. Rabbits, the lop-eared variety, were a favorite with my kids. My youngest, Bear (yeah, I’m one of those crazy kind of nickname parents) was especially fond of them.
Anyone who has ever had a rabbit as a pet knows that if you keep them in their cage outdoors for a few weeks, you can then begin to open the door of their cage and let them come and go as they please. They will wander within a radius of about twenty feet of their cage and instinctively return to it shortly before dusk (for fear of becoming a predator’s dinner).
Every morning Bear would let them out, play with them on and off throughout the day (they really are very friendly) and lock them in their cages before dark.
One evening, when it was time to tuck them in (as she called it), we couldn’t find Roscoe (Yes, Roscoe, as in Roscoe P. Coletrain. All of our rabbits were named after Dukes of Hazzard characters.) Now that we’ve established that my kids aren’t the most creative people I know… back to Roscoe. We searched for him until dark and then searched for him with flashlights while Bear alternated between calling his name and crying. We were forced to give up our search and assured her that he probably found a friend and would be back by the time she got up in the morning, although we were quite certain he’d long since been eaten up!
She woke up the next morning and before she ate breakfast or gathered eggs, (her favorite chore), she went out to see if Roscoe was waiting at his cage. Naturally, he wasn’t. While she looked in all directions, I thanked God for not letting there be any tufts of fur lying around the cage.
Anyway, we began losing a rabbit every few days. We suggested leaving them in their cages, but Bear replied, “How would you like to be locked inside a tiny cage?” No arguing with five-year-old logic.
It was a Friday and Roscoe, Luke and Boss Hogg were gone without a trace. I was washing dishes or some other chore of a housewife and noticed my next door neighbor carrying a box to his shed in the far corner of his backyard. He wasn’t walking or running. He was “waddling.” Yes, waddling, stepping through the yard as if he were trying to avoid land mines and carrying a box in his outstretched arms. The red flag raised when I saw him glancing back at our house with every couple steps he took.
About an hour later, I watched him and his wife get into their car and pull away. Knowing that they lived alone, I did the unspeakable. I broke into their shed (let’s hope there is a statute of limitations on that.) I assume readers are smart or they wouldn’t be here, so I don’t have to tell you what was in the box. That’s right – Daisy Duke! Bear’s favorite! We quickly moved her cage into the barn to hide her.
This is where the story gets good.
The previous week, we had joined ‘said neighbors’ for service at their church. Our little town did this every year. One week, everyone would bring a neighbor to church A, the following week, we joined at church B and so on. Well, the upcoming week was to be held at our church and said neighbors had already agreed to join us.
Fast forward to our church, the following Sunday, said neighbors sitting next to us in our pew. (Yes, our pew. Regular church goers are very territorial.)
During the service, our pastor calls the children up, as he does each week. This is his attempt to engage the next generation and no one enjoys being engaged more than Bear. She was still at an age where she refused to wear pants of any kind and insisted on wearing hats that matched her frilly dresses. Seriously, she was over the top even for a girly girl.
It was typical and expected that when the pastor asked a question, Bear would raise her hand, whether she had the correct answer or not. The congregation had come to expect it. And, more often than not, the pastor would call on her. Her replies may not have always been accurate, but they were always entertaining.
This particular week, once the kids were all settled into their places on the altar step (yes, even church-going children are territorial) he asks, “This week we’re going to be talking about broken hearts. Do any of you know what it feels like to have a broken heart?”
You guessed it. Up went that little hand as she bounced her entire body up and down as if she needed the little girl’s room. The pastor must have thought the congregation was a little on the sleepy side and in need of a laugh to break the bore-barrier. “Yes, Bear. Have you ever had a broken heart?”
At this point, I wasn’t worried.
Bear stood up and placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath and in the most exasperated voice I’ve ever heard from a child, she pointed to our pew and said, “My next door neighbors have been stealing my rabbits and it’s just breaking my heart.”
Gasps………..and then silence.
Now, at that very moment I found myself questioning whether God really exists because if he did, he would have answered my prayer and let me melt into a puddle underneath the pew. I didn’t have the nerve to look at said neighbors, but I could feel their eyes burning holes in the side of my head like Satan’s fork. The first sound I recall hearing after Bear’s announcement was the sound of Bear’s voice, telling the pastor and the other children the entire story, exactly as she overheard her father and I telling it to our friends the night before. Needless to say, we were not invited back to their church the following year.
I began to question whether honesty was the best policy (at least where small children are concerned.) Bear’s mind was like a conveyor belt when she was young. Whatever went in was most definitely coming out, with no filter, off switch, or reverse button. She is single-handedly responsible for 90% of my
wrinkles laugh lines.
But in the end, honesty is the way to go.
How does this relate to writing? Well, it’s easy to fall into the stereotypical character trap. When thinking about a small child having her rabbits stolen and disposed of, what is the first reaction that comes to mind? Crying. Accusing neighbors when seen outside? I’ll bet standing proud in front of an entire congregation didn’t cross your mind. No, that wouldn’t be your first guess and isn’t that what we strive to do with our characters? So, when you’re thinking about characters, especially young characters, try making them “too” honest (or too “anything” for that matter) and watch how many new and completely unexpected directions their honesty will take your story.
*Disclaimer: I can only guess why said neighbors were disposing of the rabbits. My best guess would be that the rabbits were wandering a little too far and digging in their flower beds (which were quite lovely.) And although I’m sure they didn’t appreciate that, I don’t agree with the way they handled it. I would have been more than happy to keep the rabbits in their cages or move them to the other end of our 8 acres if it would have rectified any issues they were having, but it was never brought to my attention.
Write to the ends of your imagination ~k.e. garvey