Thursday, May 22, 2014

It Really is All About Size

I'm from Iowa, State Fair home of the Butter Cow. Every year a new one. Every year news. Butter cows are life-sized and thereby newsworthy. 

My favorite butter is at the other end of the size spectrum. It's the tiny gold-wrapped pat of butter you get in any mid-range restaurant in America. It's a single serving, or at least a single ounce of butter. Sometimes it smooshes as you open it, liquifying butter oozing out. Other times it's cold and hard and smooshes your bread. 

But when it's perfect, when the foil-lined paper pulls back easily and a third of the pat slices cleanly away from the rest and then spreads smoothly onto the slice of baguette, I delight in that butter. The delight is not only the sweet, salty, richness, but also the apportionment. It's not that I'm attentive to having only one serving. Rarely is it that. Rather, I like taking a little at a time and knowing there's more. It's something I've done since childhood. It's not an OCD thing. I don't have to do it. But there's some weird pleasure I derive from eating a favored food in small bits. 

Now that I've revealed more than I ever should have about my inner workings, let me point out that the smallest of details is a key to believable characters. It's not that they must teeter on the edge of pathology, though the intriguing ones sometimes do, especially the antagonists. No, it's that the attention to human detail is crucial to creating characters that aren't cardboard cutouts serving a plot. 

It's possible to observe such detail in ourselves or in others. In private or in public. It's possible to do this with intention, collecting tidbits of lives lived to place in fiction.

For me, it's been an accumulation. I've been observing as long as I can remember. And evidently, remember I do. I've never kept these observations in a notebook. I haven't catalogued them or arranged which ones would go together. But when I'm writing, I find that the character appears not just in actions, but in the delight of a pat of butter, or the delicate balance of a favored wine glass, or even in the preference not to wash organic spinach.

It could be that the person who takes a photo through a glass window of the butter cow is just such an observer/collector. The web is filled with these photos, some with a member of the photographer's family, some with the sculptor of the butter, some with a protest painted on the window. But that's not been my method. I always stand unobtrusively off to the side, the voyeur observing those so fascinated they needed a souvenir.

I have no such photos. Only memories. And characters who emerge from those memories, like so much butter, cooled to just the right temperature for sculpting.

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