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The Characters Among Us

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One of my assignments for a fiction writing class was to talk to one person I didn’t know and come up with a gift for that person, something that would tell the class who he is. For 10 minutes, I talked to the guy sitting next to me whose name is Tyler. We talked about skiing, New Mexico, drums, music, sock monkeys, soccer, comedy, and books. It was fun getting to know someone it would normally take me weeks to talk to, and then having to come up with a present for him.

Now, I have grown up in a family of girls. The only “boy” around is my dad, and coming up with gifts for him isn’t too difficult because he’s a dad and he likes anything. So coming up with a gift that represented the core of this person, this boy, I had spoken to for 10 minutes was a bit challenging. I don’t know what to get a boy!

I had this idea to make a silly quote book with quotes about skiing and funny things said on his favorite television show. I also gave him a peanut butter cup because, when it doubt, candy never fails. I was pretty impressed with myself, and Tyler seemed to like his gift too. All I wanted to accomplish with it was to make him laugh because it never hurts to make someone happy, even if only for a moment.

What was so cool about this assignment was that it forced us to go deeper, to really think about this person and, from the questions we ask and answers we receive, try to figure out who this person really is. It was an exercise for us aspiring writers to look beyond the surface of people and really find a character. It made us take off the blinders that so many go through life wearing and ask questions other than, “What’s your favorite color?” We had to ask questions that we genuinely wanted to know the answers to. When you’re talking to a complete stranger, this can be pretty difficult.

I took from this exercise a bit of different way of looking at people. I didn’t learn Tyler’s deepest secrets or what his first grade teacher’s name was, but I was still able to catch a glimpse of his character by watching the way he talked about things. When you pay attention to the ways in which people speak- what makes their eyes light up or how they can go on for days about their favorite sports team- you learn more than words can ever say.

Ever since that class I can’t stop thinking about that saying, “You never know what others are going through.” There were countless times during my mom’s chemo treatment and my parent’s divorce that I just wanted to say, “If only you knew what my family has been through…” I will probably never know what Tyler has been through but I can tell, just by our brief conversation, what makes him smile. I think that, if we can all learn what makes others smile, it just might help them through whatever they are struggling with. I have a new challenge for myself and for anyone else that wants to join me: pay attention to the people around you. Ask questions you want to know the answers to. You’ll find more than strangers. You’ll find characters, and you’ll learn what makes them smile. And that always makes the world a little brighter.