On Friday, we laid my mother to rest at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
She’d passed from this world eighteen days earlier.
As with all events that strike at our mortality, this set off a chain of thoughts that seem random – as well as striking some people as a bit macabre or even profane. Yet for me the chain was profound.
I am a writer as well as a grieving son, and the two are strangely melded into a single Human with one bicameral brain. Thoughts constantly cross-circuit, short-circuit, and short out. This is an instance of not knowing exactly which one happened – but producing a startling result.
The woman we laid to rest was NOT a character anymore.
Her spirit, the soul that animated her, had departed eighteen days before the body was buried.
What had created the character known by many names – but chief to ME, as Mom?
I personally believe she was animated by an eternal God to serve the purpose for which she was created. Be that as it may, as a WRITER of characters who are often accused of being less-than-cardboard, I was abruptly faced with the question, “What made Mom an active, beloved, moving character in the story of her life? What drew hundreds of people to her funeral in the cramped chapel of the obscure digs of the Cremation Society of Minnesota?
Were they there to look at a body? Emphatically NOT! There were there to honor, celebrate, and grieve over a character who would no longer play any role at all in her life or the lives of any others.
So WHAT made her a living character – and selfishly – how can I use her death to make my own characters come to life? All of this rumination leads me to the irrefutable statement above. Before Frankenstein’s Monster was zapped, he was just a man-shaped pile of stitched-together meat. If he had not been animated by a lightning strike, the book would have ended there with, “It rotted. THE END”
The question is then, “What made Mom a character?”
First and foremost, anyone who knew my mom would tell you that she was FUNNY. My sister found twenty-six pairs of wildly unusual eyeglasses when she was cleaning out Mom’s stuff. I have a pair of Harry Potters at my elbow. She was buried with five other pairs laying on her hands. Why was she funny? Because SHE loved to laugh. By making herself laugh – sometimes at the expense of her dignity! – others couldn’t help but laugh with her.
Second was that she was passionate about a few things: her family, being part of a crazy annual scholarship fundraiser called the Wastebasket Revue, quilting (everyone in the family has one or more of her works of folk art, and there are probably more elsewhere), and lastly, in the brief eulogy my artist-author-psychologist daughter posted, “May I ever be a representation of your cool sophistication, bold style, bravery, and strength as a mother and my grandmother.” (I guess there were more things in the Second than just the one.)
For now, then, if you’ll pardon the pun, which I didn’t intend: rather than flogging a dead horse, what actually made my mom – and by extension ANY character – alive?
1) They are funny – intentionally or accidentally.
2) They are passionate about a few things.
3) They are sophisticated (= worldly, experienced) in whatever world they inhabit.
4) They have a bold style and move forward, even if they’re timid at first.
5) They are brave which implies that the character is afraid of something.
6) They are strong in order to overcome some OTHER force acting against them.
Also note that humor, passion, sophistication, boldness, bravery, and strength CAN ALL FAIL. That is the tension that should be inherent in story. Stories of those who are both real and those who are fictional.
So, to quote the fictional character Mia Thermopolis, “The concept is grasped. It’s just the execution that’s a little elusive.” (PRINCESS DIARIES 2). We’ll see if I can apply this Frankenstein Concept consistently in the future.