His obituary was dry and short. It named his surviving siblings, child, grand- and great-grandkids, and informed readers that he was a farmer and heavy equipment operator who loved barbeques and cookouts.
Left unsaid were all the things that made him who he was. Like the fact that he came from a large family that grew exponentially with each new generation. And that that family was close, coming together in shared triumphs and losses.
The bare bones of his obituary failed to show the man who knew the land as only one who makes his living from it can. We don’t read that he stooped to lift a handful of soil every spring, feeling through his calloused fingertips its readiness to nurture the seed he would plant. It doesn’t tell us how he walked endless rows of tobacco, slashing the weeds from around each plant with a quick, efficient swing of his sharp hoe. We never see him on the old tractor, long before John Deere enclosed the driver’s seat, added air-conditioning and stereo to the cab. No, we don’t see the slow roll of the huge tires across the field under the relentless sun striking the top of his faded feed-store cap. And we don’t learn about the dogged determination to harvest one last field of corn before the black clouds on the horizon empty their loads of rain, hail and wind, devastating the acres he surveys from atop that tractor. There are no words that describe the freezing winters that killed the cows that provided both milk for his family and a little extra income. Not one word mentioned about the floods that inundated the home place, sweeping away every effort, every possession… and the way he picked up and starting his life anew as soon as the waters receded.
The words in the newspaper column don’t tell the story of the great losses in his life, anymore than they describe the example of fortitude and perseverance this man set for the next generation, and all those to come.
When I write his story I’ll add how his face lit up to see the children of his cousins. It’s important to share that this man made a point of asking how each of us were doing, each time he saw me, even though he saw our family so seldom – only on our short visits from across the country. I’ll tell you that even when his memory began to fail, he had a smile and a joke when I pulled up a chair to spend time with him.
Yes, his obituary was short and dry. But the character of the man was rich and deep, full of love for his family and his land, shy about sharing emotions but revealing them through his actions.
I’ll bring this simple farmer to one of my stories, one day. He’ll be the quiet hero who never quits, no matter the obstacles life throws in his path. And when the story is complete, I’ll smile because I’ll know this character represents all those simple farmers in my family tree. Yes, that’s how I’ll write his story.
When you create a character, do you draw from people you know or have known? What are the values and behaviors that make them real to your readers? Share a comment about someone unforgettable, someone who inspired your life, and how they would show up as a character in something you might write.