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The role of "stuff" in character development

I got rid of Facebook earlier this year. But before I did, I used to follow "The Minimalists." Theirs was a community based on downsizing your life, living more simply through fewer possessions, less debt, and more time with people and pursuits that matter to you. I was struck by one of the last posts of theirs I saw before I left Facebook.

On the weekend before valentines day, The Minimalists posted several anti-consumerist posts, some memes, some just short paragraphs. All of them made the point that giving gifts was ultimately a destructive practice, that it is not a love language, but rather a habit. They also said giving diamonds is not giving love, but rather ostentatious overspending. Sounds pretty reasonable for people who adhere to minimalism, right? But holy heavens, the comments section.

There were accusations of Communism, of misogyny, of ingratitude. And these were not one-sentence rebukes. These commenters were MAD. It makes you wonder about such an extreme reaction from people who signed up to the page. Ultimately, it's because human beings consistently underestimate our attachment to stuff.

Americans, in particular, love our stuff. We define ourselves by our belongings. These are not just things we own, things we liked when Pier 1 was having a sale. These things ARE us. Don't believe me? If you have the expanded cable package, flip to HGTV or DIY sometime and watch one of those tiny house shows. In order for the show participants to move from their current abode to their tiny house (under 600 square feet), they have to do extreme downsizing on their possessions. It simply will not all fit and a lot of it needs to go. Bear in mind, these people decided on their own to do this and went a step further to have their decision televised.

Now we the viewer get to watch the freakout when it comes time to get rid of their stuff. We can examine how each person—the husband, wife, and sometimes, kids—chooses different hills to die on. Mom NEEDS all these shoes; she couldn't possibly do without any of them. Dad NEEDS his guitars, all of them, though his band days are far behind him. We'll forgive the children because, well, they're children.

It's easy to judge people for this attachment to possessions. We all value different things. I will scoff at anyone's attachment to a piece of clothing or a handbag. But I once jumped into a dumpster to retrieve a twenty-year-old stuffed animal with holes in it. 
I'm pretty ruthless with clutter (which is why I subscribed to the Minimalists channel) and when I was newly married, I figured the time had come to get rid of my two remaining stuffed animals, both of which I'd been given by my mother when I was three. "Monk" was a chimpanzee puppet with a long-since broken squeaker function. He was in good enough shape that I gave him to my niece and nephew, who love him immensely to this day.  The other one was "Pola," a stuffed polar bear with some holes and generally not robust enough to handle the affections of toddlers. So I thought I'd throw him away. It was hard, but I knew it was the correct thing. The adult thing.
An hour after I threw him in my apartment complex's dumpster, I was standing in other people's garbage, looking for my stuffed bear. I found him, I brought him home, and I washed him. He sits on the bed in my guest bedroom to this day. People saw me in that dumpster and asked me if I was okay. These were my neighbors, folks I would have to see on a regular basis. But I didn't care. I cared about Pola, my stuffed bear... my friend.

The things people value can tell you a lot about them, both in your writing and in your life. I found that out the hard way when I told my husband that the BMW he had bought was stupid and a waste of money and that he would have been just as happy with the Hyundai Genesis.
Actual Photo
Because, you see, it's not the actual thing the person is clinging to. It's what the thing means to the person. For my husband, who was raised in a poor, rural community and was mocked by his classmates for his shabby possessions, the suggestion he drive anything less than a luxury brand was a slap in the face, an attempt to kick him back down to the "less-than" status he held as a child. He craves status and being revered by those around him, even if they are strangers. Their opinions, though meaningless to me, are vitally important to him.

For me, the stuffed bear was just about the only constant in my life. We moved every two to three years until I was fifteen. So no lifelong friends for me. I have my family... and I have a dirty, worn stuffed polar bear my mother got me in Korea. I crave stability, tradition, and loyalty. And I will cut you if you try to throw out my VHS of Tiny Toons: How I spent my Summer Vacation. For the record, I no longer own a VCR.

So look closely at the people in your life and the ones you create in your writing. Which of their possessions do they value beyond its actual worth? And why do you think that is? You'd be amazed how much insight you can get from such a small detail.


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