Thursday, August 21, 2014

Polishing the Shoes of Your Characters

For as far back as you can remember, you've been familiar with the mantra from the scroll of Conventional Wisdom, "Before you undertake to judge any man, you should walk a mile wearing his shoes."

At first, naive narrator that you were, you took this admonition with great literal √©clat, to the point of noticing the shoes  various personages in your life wore, in secret polishing your father's shoes, and keeping a notebook in which you ranked strangers on the basis of your assessment of the shoes they wore.  Your then grades of shoes:  funny, scruffy, shiny, and needs improvement.

This last category was of special meaning to you because of the grading system used on Los Angeles City Schools report cards at the time.  In addition to the letter grades of A downward to F, there were three columns for deportment.  Cooperation.  Attitudes.  Deportment.  Those grades, also letters, were R for outstanding, S for satisfactory, and N for needs improvement.  Your course grades on occasion descended into a B, your deportment grades more often than not Ns with the occasional S thrown in.

How easy it was for you to see other person's shoes in need of improvement, given your own reminders of your deportment.  How easy also for you to see your own shoes in need of improvement; they were with some regularity at a state where the sole separated from the upper, and thus your mother's groan to your father, "We have to go to Thrifty soon.  Look at his shoes."  

By going to Thrifty, she meant the then drugstore chain, Thrifty's, and yet another venture into the do-it-yourself shoe repair kit, which consisted of a thick slab of outer sole, resembling the meat patties of the hamburgers sold at the Thrifty's lunch counter for twenty-nine cents, and a tube of the then equivalent of Gorilla Glue, although in fact, Gorilla Glue would not come onto the scene for at least another fifty years.

You'd likely put in a mile or so in your father's shoes during your polishing of them, but the best sense you got of him was from the pleasure of his company.  You aspired to his tallness and seemingly off-handed casualness.  When you observed him in groups of people, he appeared to be in the middle or in some other deployment where both men and women were close by.  Even then, you knew it was not because he was the talkative sort, rather there was a radiant magnetism.

Sometimes, on shopping trips with your mother and sister, you'd pause at shoe collections, trying to imagine the men and women who would at some future time have these shoes as their own.  Thus you were in your imagination, walking a mile in shoes yet to belong to anyone.

Years later, you'd worn down your naivet√© by a plateau or two, aware from your own experiences that the mile-in-the-shoes trope was indeed a metaphor; everyone had an equivalent of a time or situation in which their soles needed Gorilla Glue of some sort to put a temporary hold on flapping outer soles of some other sort.  

You also knew from sad experience that characters did not appear in stories without some consideration given to the miles they'd walked in shoes of their own choice.  Who better than you to recognize this after following the advice of one or two of the professionals you'd come in contact with?  The best thing you can do with a finished story is to set it aside, forget it for at least a week, maybe two.

Later still, your grades of N for needs improvement, rose to the S for satisfactory, in the sense of you understanding the importance of a more detailed biography for any character who set foot on the narrative stage of one of your stories, even those stories you referred to as Fifty-dollar-specials you wrote for the likes of the locally published pulp magazines.

Much of this stream of memory has come to you courtesy of your inadvertently knocking an unseen tin of Kiwi neutral shoe wax to the floor of your closet in search of a particular shirt, the only shirt the character who was then you could wear under the now-forgotten venture the character who was you thought to make into the world.

Credit where credit was due.  You spent some hours polishing shoes these various you individuals would wear, each pair reminding you of earlier times and earlier, more literal, and perhaps most effective of all attempts to understand the natures of character.

Never presume to create or judge a character without having polished at least one pair of his or her shoes.

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