Ties that bind – and using them.

‘If ye ha’ been wa’ I ha’ been, ye wouldna be sae swankie-o’ (The braes o’ Killiekrankie) No, this is not about bondage or even zip-ties (It could be either, but they’re just aspects. It’s actually about common ground, shared experience, and how that works to bind us to people we have never met, and have no other ties to. You see, that is a big part of being a successful writer — getting people to give a rat’s butt about your character. If they don’t bind them at all, that’s really the end of that sale.

Fortunately, humans are – with a few exceptions, not that narrow. The stay-at-home mini-painter and the world-travelling bungee jumper may seem to have nothing in common – until you discover their mothers and homes they grew up in were very alike down to the same green Tupperware jug. So do shared hardships, and things military service (yes, there are differences, but similarities too. Put a room full of veterans from across the world in a room, and add a bunch of civilians… come back in an hour, and you’ll find the vets talking and the civs talking… but not to each other. The same holds true of rock-climbers, of bowlers (I found myself at an evening where I was only person who didn’t play lawn bowls…)

Here on the island, I find we get on really well with a Chinese girl, whose parents still live in Malaysia… She – like my wife and I – went to an Anglican boarding school – a weird little subculture that really is a world of its own. We share Stalky and Co. She’s ex-Chinese. We’re ex-South African. We find we share a lot that most Australians (or most South Africans or Malaysian origin Chinese) don’t. To look at us, we couldn’t be more different. But… as any fule kno ‘We ha been’ and it would take you having been too, to see things quite the same way.

Of course, those of us who have ‘been there’ – whether we’re talking about the army, boarding-school, or Utah (I feel quite left out, being a writer who is not from Utah, has never been to Utah) there is besides common ground a feeling that those who have these bonds are somehow better than the rest. There were a few bastards I was in the army with, and few more back at school that I definitively say that wasn’t true about… well, except in one respect. They did have that experience.

Is this ‘stay in your lane?’ Good grief, no. It’s just ‘if you have that experience, use it.’ It isn’t all of you and it shouldn’t be all of your character – but just I have used for example: fly-fishing, and diving, and rock-climbing and medicine as aspects of character who are no other way like me, these aspects I know I get right, and know I get right the effects of how these things color the character’s thinking. And… well people make the assumption that if I got that right, the rest might be, and well, if they share that experience, then they will find themselves having an easier time caring about that character.

And maybe enjoy a shared, private laugh at how to be Topp (I wonder how many people will get that?)

5 thoughts on “Ties that bind – and using them.

  1. Every summer as a child and well into my late teens we made the 1300 mile trek from northwestern Illinois to Ogden Utah to spend the season with my great aunt Mame, my grandmother’s sister. Interesting place. Snow capped mountains to the east, great salt flat desert country to the west, and easy access to trout filled mountain streams and mountain valleys filled with abundant fruit orchards.
    Mame’s second husband was LDS so she converted while we were Lutheran. Never much of an issue as far as I recall, though as I got older there was some gently pressure to find me a good Mormon girl and settle down. Managed to dodge that bullet.
    Brother and I did scut work for the two sisters, yard work, helped pick and can some of that plentiful fruit, and a good bit of ridge running with cousins. Seemed normal to us, but a whole other world to our classmates back in Illinois.

  2. So, in other words, every little detail you include about your character is another chance for the reader to connect. “Oh, wait, she likes to bake cherry pie? I love cherry pie!” Not that it isn’t important to give lots of details about a character anyway, but this is one more.

  3. Sigh – military vet here. And lived three years in Utah…
    but yes – every little bit of experience you can graft on to your characters makes them relatable to readers! Even the tiny things.

  4. All those little ‘throwaway’ bits DO become important to fleshing out the character(s), and if they are military, those ‘bits’ could really be strange… LOL

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