When my grandfather went out to eat he always put sugar in his coffee, even though he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. He did it because the sugar was free.
I’ve heard that little story dozens of times since I was a boy. It comes up all the time when my family talks about my grandfather. It sums him up in two sentences. If you know that story, you know a lot about him.
Lately I’ve been working to make characters come to life in a story I’m writing. I struggle. I create backgrounds for them so I know how they think, how they talk, what foods they hate, and what they shout when having sex. I make them do and say significant things that will show who they are. But I often fail to build the thing I’m looking for—that fundamental, defining image as stark as being caught in a lightning flash.
I think I’ve overlooked the Free Sugar Factor.
The Free Sugar Factor involves a person doing something that’s habitual, probably trivial, and always unusual. It’s the kind of thing his family would bring up when they talk about him. They might say, “Oh yeah, whenever Aunt Jane got mad she’d drive to the grocery store and sit in the parking lot for an hour or two. What a character.”
The Free Sugar Factor isn’t some pathological behavior, unless the person really is a maniac. It’s doing something everyone else thinks is peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to the person doing it. We all do these things. It’s part of what makes us real people. I’m not sure, but I think mine may have something to do with turkey sandwiches.
To illuminate this whole concept, here are a couple of Free Sugar Factor examples from real people.
My father’s Aunt Delphi, who he swears was the best cook in the world, made a gigantic pan of biscuits in her wood burning stove every morning, far more than the household could eat. The family would eat about a fourth of the biscuits, and then she’d feed the rest to her husband’s coon dogs.
When I was a boy, my father kept a perfectly tuned diesel engine on blocks in the backyard, as I’m sure everyone else’s father did too. It drew diesel fuel from the gas can sitting next to it. Every day when he came home from work he started up the engine and stood there letting it run for a while.
The Free Sugar Factor usually involves a habitual act, but not always. Some isolated acts are definitive in themselves and forever after show what that person was about. For example, when my mother was three years old, her six-year-old brother took her to the nearby store to see Santa Claus. They joined a long line, and they stood just behind an overweight woman. My uncle kicked the woman right in the middle of her ass and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santa Claus!”
I’ll bet that gave you an image of who he is. Or was.