by Naomi Kinsman
For me, May is the month of birthdays. For one thing, my birthday is only a few days away. Also, every time I turn around, another family member or friend is celebrating his or her special day.
As a writer, birthdays are a powerful character development tool for me. Sometimes I'll use a birthday on the pages of a book, but more often, I'll write about a character's birthdays as an exercise to explore personality.
Take me, for instance. Here's a short list of memorable birthday moments from my life:
1. My annual birthday challenge in elementary school to dive into the non-heated pool. If I braved the challenge, my reward was ice cream. Usually mint chocolate chip, because that was my favorite. I didn't recognize the irony of rewarding cold with even colder until I was much older.
2. In middle school, the popular girls finally came to my party. They all piled into one raft when we went out to float on the duck pond, and of course, the rest of us ended up in the other. My glee when their boat sprung a leak and they started to sink surprised me. Who is this stranger inside my skin?
3. In high school, I planned a progressive dinner for my birthday, with scavenger hunt clues sending teams of friends racing all over the city of Portland. Planning the extravaganza was even more fun than the birthday itself.
We can learn so many things from a character on his or her birthday.
1. What does she love to do?
2. Who does he spend time with? Does he prefer large groups or small ones?
3. Do her friends make her gifts, or are the gifts store-bought?
4. What do the gifts given reveal about him?
5. What does the reaction to the gifts reveal about her?
6. How does he change from birthday to birthday? What remains the same?
7. Does she plan her own birthday? If not, who plans the day? Is this what she would choose, were it up to her?
8. How does he feel about people singing happy birthday, or not?
9. What surprises come up on her birthday?
10. Which birthdays are most meaningful to him?
And, of course, the list could go on. As I write about these pearls of memory, I stockpile ideas that I can weave into my story. Maybe I use one of those gifts that continues to be meaningful far after a birthday is over. Or maybe, I use a memory of the birthday to add meaning to another event. Sometimes, I just use the preferences I discover to figure out what a character might choose to do on a free Saturday.
If you're a writer, I'd love to hear how you use birthdays in your work. If you're a reader (I hope everyone is!), I'd love to hear about your favorite literary birthdays. And if you're celebrating your birthday this month, I wish you happiness, joy, creativity, laughter and lots of adventure on your special day.