Identity is a strange concept. When someone asks you to identify yourself, what are they talking about? Age, name, race, location?
Marriage status, number of children, rent or own your home?
Employment, education? What the hell do they want? Blood type? Hair color? Whether you put the toilet paper hanging down the front or the back?
I have been thinking about this quite a bit as I try, desperately, to round out the characters in my latest endeavor–a supernatural suspense novel I’m still in the beginning of drafting. What gives a character his or her identity? What’s important?
When I first meet someone in my own life, all I really want to know is what makes them laugh. This little tidbit of information will tell me more about a person than anything else. We don’t have to have the exact same type of sense of humor to get along, but if there is no sense of humor at all, we have a problem.
One of my dearest friends is someone I met at my first job after graduating college. I already had a kid, was married, and my own identity had been thrown in a frying pan and scrambled together with the identities of other women I knew who were new moms and wives. In short, I had no idea who I was or who I might become. I just knew having women in the same situation with whom I could speak on a regular basis was important. So I was utterly disappointed when my office mate, a woman a few years older than me with a child and husband of her own, left for a better job, leaving a vacancy in our department, my office, and my life. I hoped my boss would hire someone else like me. Someone I could relate to. My closest friends from high school and college had scattered. My mom had just died. I longed for that closeness with someone–to be able to say whatever popped into my head without insecurity.
A few weeks later my boss came by my office, new hire in tow, rapping on my door. I turned and smiled, welcomed our new recruit. She was around my age, she had freckles like me. She also was impeccably dressed, wearing designer shoes and a designer purse. She was put-together in a way I had never been, and never envisioned myself being. I was intimidated. She was so cute and spunky and I was a train wreck. I immediately judged–which I try not to do–that she was too good to want a friend like me. I was a disaster.
Over the next week I found out that my new colleague was married to her high school sweetheart (just like me)! And that they had been prom king and queen (so very NOT like me. My husband and I had been band geeks). She was two years older than I was, no kids. Everything she said sounded so much more sophisticated than anything I said. Man, this chick had her shit together. If we had gone to the same high school, there was no way in hell we would have been friends. I nodded politely as she spoke about things which weren’t on my radar, and resigned myself to never making new friends as an adult. Maybe it was just too hard to make meaningful connections with new people once real life started.
Then, it happened. Ms. Perfectly-Put-Together came into my office in her adorable sundress, her Kate Spade purse slung over her shoulder, shut my door behind her and said, “Can I hang out in here a while? I had beans for dinner last night and now my whole office stinks.” She then proceeded to tell me a litany of fart jokes, offered me a cigarette, and told me that she and her husband like to make up songs about bathroom habits and what they do all day. We’ve been best pals ever since.
Of course now, we both have two kids and our conversations revolve around our children’s bathroom and fart habits more than our own, and we have to carefully plan time together weeks in advance, but even after job changes and moves, we still bond over our shared sense of humor.
So, maybe I should start there with these new characters. Maybe we should get a glimpse at what makes them laugh.