We all need characters in our lives

Published 5:00 pm Sunday, November 10, 2002

By By Lloyd Albritton
Like millions of other television fans, I loved the Seinfeld series and continue to laugh out loud at the outrageous antics of its core characters, Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine, in series reruns. Characters have always been the mainstay of successful television programs and movies. Who can forget Barney Fife and Ernest T. Bass and all the crazy characters of the old Andy Griffith show. Characters are sometimes lovable, sometimes laughable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and unique.
My life has been filled with friends and acquaintances who are no less characters than those I have seen on television and in the movies. I love characters. I am attracted to them like a magnet; and characters seem attracted to me as well, perhaps because my fondness for them is usually apparent.
Because of my fascination with characters, I have spent an inordinate amount of time pondering what it is that makes a person a character and I have come to an interesting conclusion. Everybody is a character! Within every human being, no matter how mundane or nondescript, lies the profile of a true character. But, how could it be so? Aren't characters unique and entertaining precisely because they are rare? If everybody were a character, then would not characters be common?
Characters, in fact, are common. That is why we often fail to recognize them. I came to understand this fact many years ago when a close friend from New Jersey came to visit me in the south. Having spent his life in the urban region of New York City, my friend's life experiences were significantly different from mine in the rural south. As I introduced him to my family, friends and neighbors in the south, he seemed taken with everyone he met. One day he said to me, "Everybody I meet in this place is an absolute character!"
I had lived among my southern friends and neighbors for most of my life and I had always taken their colorful and eccentric personalities for granted. I had not perceived them the same way my friend had, for the ways of the southern character are as common in the south as grits and tomato gravy. My friend's revelation opened my eyes, however, and in the years since, I have told and written many stories of the southern characters I have known since childhood, and many have thought my stories and characters to be entertaining. While living in New York for several years, I was as equally fascinated with the oddball characters I met in that region, as my friend had been with those he met while living in the south.
And so, it may be that characters are mostly a matter of perception. Those who think and act differently, that is, outside the norm, are often perceived as characters. But, in fact, a character is sort of like a hero. We seldom know who is, or who is not, a hero until a crises arises. We read about heros in books and see them portrayed in movies, but we do not recognize them standing next to us in our day-to-day lives. The qualities of a hero lie within an individual all along, but they are not usually seen and acknowledged until severe conditions require that person's particular skills and courage to be called forth.
It is a curiosity of the human condition that there are so many of us, and yet we all look different. How could it be possible that the common human facial structure could be arranged in so many distinctive ways? Yet, it is true. We are all so similar, yet so different in physical form. Considering this phenomenon, it seems logical that each human character and personality would also be different.
People do not generally like to be seen as different though, so most people tend to try their best to look and act alike: to dress alike, to wear their hair alike and to drive similar cars and live in similar houses. Marketing experts plan their sales strategies around this knowledge of human behavior. Humans are trendy.
When the occasional person comes along and marches to his own tune, expresses his own thoughts and opinions, dresses differently and acts differently, we think of him as eccentric and rare. We say, "What a character!" Yet, most of us perceive such characters as interesting and entertaining because we admire them for being themselves and we recognize in them what we know is in us as well. Being a character is like asking a dumb question in a classroom. None of us wants to be the one to ask such a stupid question, but when the idiot over in the corner asks it, half the class members are secretly pleased, for we were likely wondering about that very question, but were afraid to ask it.
Cosmo Kramer notwithstanding, a person does not have to be an idiot to be a character. Neither can one be a character by emulating someone else. A character is nothing more than someone who lets his or her real personality out. I have known some people for many years who I thought to be quite common and uninteresting, then when cast together in private conversation, that person expressed thoughts and opinions of such depth, and in such a unique way, that I found myself thinking, "What a character this fellow is!" While society's most popular characters are often boisterous and extroverted, equally as many are quiet and introverted and yet to be discovered.
When Will Rogers, one of America's great public characters, said, "I never met a man I didn't like," I think he was exemplifying this very notion, for perhaps it takes a character to know a character. And, perhaps the best way to find a character is to just be one.

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