Just Part of the Family
Guest Post by Sandra McLeod Humphrey
I’ve been working on a young adult novel that takes place at a summer camp for girls with emotional problems in northern Minnesota, and I find it more than a little disconcerting that some of my characters have recently moved in with me.
This morning I found the camp director, Mrs. A, at my breakfast table shoveling sugar into her herbal tea, and last night I found her rummaging through my fridge, looking for avocados for her guacamole dip.
And it’s not just Mrs. A who has moved in. Leslie (my Protagonist) and some of her camper friends are also showing up unexpectedly. I found Trisha (a young black girl who longs to have her own garden amidst the chaos of the inner city) wandering around my backyard last week. She wasn’t being a nuisance or anything. She was just out there smelling the flowers.
Then there’s anorexic Jennifer. She hasn’t actually moved in yet, but I see her in some of the young girls I mentor at our church. They talk about their control issues at home and how food is the only thing in their lives that they feel they have any control over. Jennifer doesn’t say anything at these meetings, she just nods in agreement.
And, of course, there’s Rachel, “the cutter.” There were so many Rachels at the state mental hospital who insisted that they had to cut “to feel better.” They shared with me how they could deal more easily with their physical pain than with their psychological pain, and how the physical pain gave them a temporary respite from their psychological pain.
I’ve even run into Cynthia Winston, the villain of the piece, right in my own bathroom—-usurping the bathroom mirror while she apples her makeup. Actually, Cynthia has pretty much taken over all my mirrors. She’s always there, preening and giving me her little Mona Lisa half-smile.
Although I have never invited any of my characters to move into my home and take over so much of my life, I find I’m becoming used to having them around. And I might even miss them if they were to move out.
I think what I’ve concluded from all this is that to make our characters real to our readers—-characters whom they really care about-—we must care about them first. They must be so real to us that we see them everywhere we go and in everything we do, and sometimes we may even find them in the most unexpected places!
Sandra McLeod Humphrey is a retired clinical psychologist, a character education consultant, and an award-winning author of eight middle-grade and young adult books. She’s also the recipient of the National Character Education Center’s Award for Exemplary Leadership in Ethics Education (2000) and the 2005 Helen Keating Ott Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature. You can learn more about her books by visiting her Web site at http://www.kidscandoit.com and her blog at http://www.kidscandoit.com/blog/