When I was little, my favorite toys were Fisher Price Little People. Not the big chunky ones they have now because of that whole annoying “choking hazard” thing (who would be so stupid as to waste a Little Person by swallowing it?). I played with the smaller and infinitely superior versions we inherited and accumulated. Some of the older ones were made of wood, but followed the same basic design as their plastic counterparts.
We had a whole set of Sesame Street Little People, which included the Muppet characters like Big Bird and Grover, but also the real people like Susan, Gordon and Mr. Hooper. I had two favorite Little People. The first was Betty Lou, a pink Muppet with blond hair and a blue dress with a white, plastic collar around the top. The second was also a girl, in a darker blue dress, with red (and I literally mean red, here) hair in a pony tail. Her eyes were painted on her little face as if they were perpetually closed–all eyelashes. She was not a Sesame Street character, but something made her stand out from the rest of the Little People with their large, black dots for eyes. She had a specific name which my sister and I gave her and is lodged still somewhere deep down in the corners of my memory.
The Little People were only the barest suggestions of people. They had different colored bodies, and slightly different faces. Some of them had cowboy hats, and one particularly unpleasant boy had a baseball cap on backwards and a painted face that destined him to always be the bad kid. They had no arms or legs to speak of, and only the very minimalist features of a face. Yet for us, each individual one had a very specific personality and history which, once set in place, could not be defied.
My sister and I would play together with the Little People, but as she grew older, they were all mine. My mother, in her generosity, would allow me take over large areas of the house with elaborate Little People worlds. We owned a house, a barn and a replica for Sesame Street, as well as a Weeble-Wobble tree house that could also serve in a pinch. But this was not enough for the sprawling territory of Little People life which I sought to create. And so cigar boxes and wooden blocks and sometimes, if it came to that, Legos, had to be employed in order to build a fully realized world for the Little People. Places they could travel back and forth to in their Little People cars and buses and motorcycles. Pasture land for the Little People horses and cows and chickens. Continents for them to fly over in their Little People planes.
This was in the blessed period of parenting when it was perfectly acceptable to say to your child, “Go play by yourself.” And I did. And it was marvelous. I will confess that if I still had Little People in my house today, I might be playing with them right now.* Instead, I write.
Little People for grown ups
You pick up your characters, and at first, they are only the barest suggestions of people. They have blond hair. They have the fuzzy outline of a face. But over time, they develop their own history. They get a name, and soon, that is the only name they could possibly have ever had.
You begin to move them around, and at first, you can’t even really describe the world they inhabit. But over time, you build it piece by piece. A farmhouse here. A park there. The very important place where their whole life changes. You use whatever you have at hand. Your memories or a picture or a scene from a movie. And eventually, there’s a whole world laid out in front of you, taking up a great deal of space in your life.
You spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get your characters from Point A to Point B. You write very detailed descriptions of their journey, and then you cut it all out. Each day you get up and look at the people all laid out before you in their made-up little world, and you wonder what they will be up to today. You dream about the lives they’ve been living while you were asleep or while you walked away. Sometimes you wish they would just decide for themselves what happens next. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes they just sit in the same place, stuck, for weeks on end.
There’s joy. It is, after all, a new kind of play. You’re never certain what might happen next. Anything is possible.
But there’s also frustration. It is so much harder to tear down the little world you have built and re-make it when it’s on a page instead of your family’s dining room table. It is so much harder when you’re working with words to pluck one character up out of the action and put her back in the box with the other unused toys.
I am not a story teller
A writing friend of mine recently shared something she’d read in a book on writing. Many writers of fiction are not really natural storytellers. Instead, we are natural observers who are sensitive to the human condition. This explains why many of us (myself included) have trouble with things like plot and narrative and structure. We have lots of insights, but struggle with creating a story out of them.
This rings true to my own experience. My husband is a master of the perfect dinner party story, while my attempts at a rousing anecdote are met with polite smiles and a timely shift in topic. I do not tell a particularly good story; but I’m likely to be watching everyone very closely, searching for the hidden dynamics of relationships and conflict. It’s easier to do so when no one’s listening to your story.
I am not a natural story teller, but I’m pretty good at playing with Little People. I would go so far as to say that I am a natural at it. Long past the age when I believe other people had stopped creating imaginary worlds in their head, I went right on. I don’t used Little People anymore, but characters, which was all the Little People were anyway. No more Legos, but detailed descriptions of the worlds in which my characters move around. It’s not always quite as fun as it was when I was seven, but remembering how it all began helps.
It was play, which is fun, but also an important strategy for moving through the world. In play, we figure out what works and what doesn’t. We play out our desires and see where they lead. We figure out the rules and whether we might someday like to break them. We build our own worlds in order to understand how the real one works. Thank goodness for Little People. And writing.
* Should I want to play with my Little People again, I am happy to say that they have all been carefully preserved by my mother. They are, however, currently in use by my nieces, nephew and sometimes when we visit, my step-daughter. Because, you see, the pull of the Little People is hard to resist.