Who Are You?

Customer-Service-Wordcloud

Borrowed from DigitalGrowth.ca

I get an occasional bout of downtime in my job. Whether this is good or bad depends on the day. Normally, I’m waiting for a customer to get back to me, or shipping details for overseas orders to arrive.

Today, there’s a lull. I have approximately eight working hours before the deluge of orders for our once-a-month run comes through and floods my desk with paper, work, and a full shipping folder that will take about 3 working days to go through. All that doesn’t include the phone calls to customers to remind them, the small tasks that I need to get through, or the back and forth walks to the planner’s office to see if we can squeeze something in.

It sounds busy and it is, but it’s far from busy-work or mundane customer service work. Mention customer service rep and they think about the open-plan office with a load of people on headsets ready to help you with all your service queries. But most people don’t know that I’m a dedicated rep, which means that I have a set of customers that I look after. I know what they order, how much they need, their core businesses, and what’s going on in the wider market that affects them and us. On top of that, I plan a smaller sister machine, which I think of as my other baby. She’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish and a topic for a different day.

As you’re very well aware, my hobby is writing. I live it, love it, and breathe it. If I have spare time, I use it to write, so it should come as no surprise that I subscribe to a large number of writing blogs, one of which is the Write Practice. I get an email most days with some kind advice on writing and craft- from how Greek and Latin make you a better writer to writing resources and everything in between.

Today’s post outlined ideas on how to get a deeper understanding of your protagonist. In short, the author reckons you need to go through a purse or briefcase, take them out to lunch, complete a questionnaire, and let your character shadow you for a day.

I had a bit of downtime this morning (and right after lunch) while I was waiting for some information to come back as well as waiting for a meeting to start. Usually, I cycle through several news media during the day: Al Jazeera, Time, Newsweek, BBC World News, two local papers, and the New Orleans news. I would look through Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications that have actual news, not Women’s Weekly articles (like the local papers) but they’re either subscription based, or they don’t like the company’s ad-blocker that we can’t turn off. Or, I look up song lyrics on AZLyrics or anything else on Google that catches my fancy for five minutes.

I don’t know what it was about today, but I wanted to write instead. The news is all doom-and-gloom; the more I read it, the more I get upset.

Below is my 15 minutes of practice (which morphed into 30, because I talked to both my protagonists):

“Oh yeah, just go through it, see what you find,” my character Sarah tells me this morning. “Just don’t judge, okay?”

“Sure thing.”

The canvas purse is small, rather compact. I’ve seen bigger, but I didn’t expect something so tiny.

I look over it. I like the colourful sugar skulls on it. “Why is it so small?”

“I don’t have much; I’m pretty low maintenance.”

I lift the flap and dump what’s in there on the table.

Two lipsticks- one of them is a chapstick. The other is a Revlon lipstick called Cherries in the Snow. Kind of a pretty red, too red for me. “Nice.”

There’s a slim black eyeliner. Obviously she needs it, given the amount of eyeliner currently in use. There’s a compact and a twist-up make-up brush. A couple of Q-tips, a hair tie.

About two dollars in change falls out. “That’s for my diet coke addiction.”

“I know that feel. Best stuff in the world.”

“I know, right! It’s the bubbles and fizz; tastes wonderful when it’s nice and cold.”

Her wallet’s about the size of a fist, just big enough for a driver’s licence, her student ID, a couple of credit cards, and a few folded up bills. She’s got $35 in bills- $15 in fives and $20 in tens. “Shame no one carries a lot of cash. It’s just enough to get me a taxi home from the bar up the road.”

“Where’s your cell phone?”

There’s a small zipped up outside pocket on the outside. “I like my tiny phone.”

It’s a small phone alright. I check out the brand: a Sony Xperia. I can hold and use it with one hand.

“I carry so many things around in my backpack, but this is what I carry when I’m out of school and outside the classroom. Small enough to not get in the way when I’m clubbing, but big enough to hold what I need. Now Simon, my husband, you should totally ask him about what’s in his briefcase.”

“I’m taking him out to lunch later.”

I shake out the bag. A small ring falls out of the outside zip. It looks like a crown of filigreed thorns. “What’s this?”

Sarah blushes and holds her hand out, sliding it on top of the simple wedding ring she’s wearing. “It’s Simon’s way of showing everyone that I belong to him. I took it off this morning since it got in the way while I was grading.”

Later, I took Simon out to lunch.

I suggest a quick business lunch with Simon, my main character. He names a place called Tarragon, an upscale Italian place up the road from his office that he thinks I’d like. I meet him in the lobby and walk with him down there.

“The consultancy business is pretty cut-throat right now. Before the financial crisis, corporations and businesses used consultants to gain an outsiders perspective on how to improve their businesses and everyone became a consultant. But, afterwards, well,” he shrugs, “a number of independents and firms are still struggling. Prodigy did what any good consultancy business would do and worked with our clients through the financial crisis. The end result is that we’re still here.”

“Prodigy survived in-tact, then?”

“Against all expectations, we grew. We’ve got a great team that’s experienced, a board that’s forward-thinking, and a CE committee that isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”

We walk for another few minutes, talking about the future of the company.

I change the subject when we get to the restaurant. “And your marriage is going well?”

He offers a smile. “I have to thank you for Sarah. She is, for lack of a better word, amazing. Responsive, beautiful, intelligent.”

The waiter shows us to the table he reserved near the kitchen. The chef comes out and shakes Simon’s hand, in turn chiding Simon for not coming in often enough and congratulating him on his marriage. He then kisses my cheeks in a larger-than-life welcome.

Simon orders a complicated Italian dish that’s not on the menu and I order a baked pennette. He sits at the table like he’s sitting at his desk; forearms resting on the table and his hands are folded, leaning slightly forward. I don’t expect anything else given that’s he’s one of the most successful CEOs in the consulting industry.

“Before you decide to plumb the depths, I don’t answer any deeply personal questions- not about my wife, myself, or my marriage. You know all of that already.”

His received pronunciation sounds all the more sinister, like a James Bond villain, but I can hear that he prefers his personal life to be just that– personal.

“What’s your favourite music,” I ask.

Another smile. More than that though, is the crack in the CEO facade. “Classical, opera, and I’m growing partial to some of Sarah’s metal music. It’s atmospheric for certain activities.”

I know exactly what he’s talking about, so skip to the next question. “Favourite colour?”

“Are you really asking me this? Grey. Blue. White. Black,” he says, then adds with a knowing smile. “Red.”

“What about favourite food?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Mollie. Small-talk doesn’t become either one of us. Small-talk is mundane. It’s for when you really don’t want to know about the other person, but don’t want to seem rude. Small-talk is for weak-minded individuals who are superficial thinkers. Deep thinkers like you and me don’t worry about the superficiality of the world, because we know it’s all a facade. Favourite foods change; favourite colours change; favourite music changes. The only constant is ourselves and our core personality: courageous, wild, controlled, generous, arrogant, intelligent, funny. We are all of them and none of them. We love our favourite things, but we aren’t defined by them.”

My fifteen/thirty minutes were up, so I left it there, but I think it reveals more than I had anticipated.

First: Sarah’s low-maintenance. She tells us, but she’s very concerned with her looks and keeping them looking good. She’s superficial and she hides behind her make-up. She rebels somewhat, by taking off the ring that Simon gave her (the ring doesn’t come into play in the story). She’s practical and a little bit of an old soul

Second: Simon’s not interested in small-talk. He wants to get to the meat of the conversation and really discuss it in depth. But he’s friendly, open, and honest, and loves his job. He has time for people, but he is always very much in control of the conversation and of the things in his life. He’s got a bit of a cheeky streak.

The more I read over these small snippets of my protagonists’ lives, the more I realise that I added myself into them, without really knowing that I did it. Personally, I am low-maintenance- though I don’t carry makeup in my handbag. I’m practical and I rebel against social mores and norms. I hate small-talk- probably because I’m so bad at it. Small talk implies that I care about your favourite food enough to talk about it, but I’m only filling in time before I can leave. I love classical, opera, and metal. And Italian. Fuck, I love Italian food. It shows, believe me.

But I think it also speaks more about stereotyping people. In fiction, we can get away with it. Simon’s wealthy, so he needs to have understated, but expensive tastes: Chivas Regal whisky, bespoke shoes and suits, classic male colours, ethnic cuisine, and he talks business. Sarah’s a student, and she’s married: a cellphone, some money, make-up in her bag, a sweet and innocent side, and a ring from her husband.

In real life, we stereotype regardless of whether we should or not.

Are these characters or caricatures? Another topic for another day, methinks.

That’s just a small window into the life of my protagonists. I’m a little afraid to let Simon shadow me for the day and what would happen if I gave Sarah Marcel Proust’s questionnaire.

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