How Do I Characterize Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still enjoy my print magazines. I interact with them differently—completely differently—than I do with any sort of online reading I do. For one thing, those pop-up ads online are of the devil. But I’m not bothered by print advertising at all: I turn the page, there’s an ad, I look or I don’t look.

Which is how I came to see the latest ad campaign from American Express. (Called “What’s my 20?” it involves making twenty purchases each month. The New York Times can tell you whatever else you’d like to know.) Since I very rarely watch television, the campaign came to my attention as a print ad in a national magazine.

Oh look! It’s a narrative list!

What’s my 20?*

1. Grilled cheese and soup from a diner, STAT.
2. Dog groomer. Someone in this family should have a hairstyle.
3. Tickets to the American Museum of Natural History for a playdate with the Blue Whale.
4. Milk.
5. A taxi ride—it’s like my own personal driver—who has amnesia and never remembers me.
6. One huge NY bagel that feeds our whole family and a family of pigeons.
7. Late night online shopping. Vintage squirrel soaps from the ’70s?! Oh boy. Go to bed.
8. Fresh fish and vegetables from Citarella that my husband knows how to cook. Yes, I am lucky.
9. Movie download for kids, also known as “the neutralizing ray.”
10. Donuts for everyone in the office, because food breeds loyalty.
11. Milk.
12. Apology to someone I’ve accidentally offended. A dozen carnations for the world’s biggest movie star!
13. Manicure. ’Cause when you talk with your hands, they should be human hands.
14. A birthday cake with a coworker’s picture on it. So I can eat his/her face.
15. Shoes for ever-growing toddler feet. I like sturdy, she prefers light-up ballerina mermaid.
16. Five “locker chandeliers” for upcoming kid birthday parties. Don’t overthink it.
17. A gym membership so I can take a “stretching area nap.”
18. Who is drinking all this #$&*@*# milk?
19. Pens and stickers from my favorite “Stationery and Toy” store. I would like to be buried there.
20. Periodicals. Celeb Plastic Surgery Secrets?! I mean … The New Yorker. Yeah, The New Yorker.

After I had a little laugh (I got stuck on “locker chandeliers,” too, until I read the advice not to overthink; ooooohhh), I realized what a great piece of writing this is. More specifically, it’s great characterization. (Sort of like Anne Lamott’s “What does your character have in his/her pockets and why?”)

How do you develop a character? You start with a name, perhaps, and a physical description. But do either of those things define who a person is? I don’t think so. It’s all the little details—that June was born in south Mississippi but raised in London, likes large dogs but is terrified of cats, argues with her mother constantly but is a daddy’s girl, buys all her clothing from charity shops and her books from used bookstores, walks to work every day except when it’s raining, anonymously slips £20 a week into the mailbox of the impoverished Nigerian student who lives in the flat upstairs, and on and on.

There are all sorts of “character charts” you can find online—lists of things to think about when you’re developing characterization. (The Proust Questionnaire—which you can see on the last page of Vanity Fair each month—is an interesting one, though I think you’d need more.)

But what about that old adage that says you are defined by how spend your money and how you spend your time? Sounds like a good place to start, at least, when you’re developing a new character. How does she prioritize her time? Does she rush straight home from work to a bubble bath and a glass of wine? Does she stop at the public library to volunteer English lessons to a group of Chinese immigrants? Or does she meet a group of friends at a pub and have that glass of wine on her way home? (Take it a step further: is it a downtown bar, or on in the neighborhood, close to home?)

How does she spend her money? What if we created a list of twenty credit card purchases for June? I think you could have a lot of fun with this. And isn’t that what this writing thing is all about? Think about it!

* Transcribed by me, © American Express 2014.


Tweet: Do a name & a physical description define who a person is? No. You need more.
Tweet: How do I characterize thee? Let me count the ways.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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