Writerly Wednesday: Using Birthdays in Your Writing

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
–William Shakespeare

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Go figure that as my birthday lurks right around the corner, my thoughts immediately turn to fictional characters and their birthdays.  After that comes the thought of actually writing their birthdays into our stories – whether it be a simple or highly dramatic scene that moves the plot along or part of the plot altogether. 

Just as it is for us writers, a characters’ birthday can be a momentous – or sad – occasion.  For me, birthdays are like mini-personal-holidays that I enjoy making a 3-4 day weekend out of.  Speaking of holidays, Jami Gold wrote a fabulous post around Christmas about how to use the holidays in our writing (which inspired this post) so I’d like to take a look at how we can use these particular occasions to texture and depth into our novels.

Writer’s Experience Lends a Hand
No matter your age, you’ve probably had one of those birthdays where:
  • You hoped someone would notice, tell you ‘Happy Birthday,’ and maybe gift you with something sweet (cake, anyone?)
  • You hoped nobody would notice so you could just go back to bed until the day was over
  • You hoped the day would never arrive because it brings with a certain truth you don’t want to face
  • You’d been waiting all year for that day  – you’re now finally able to do something you’ve been hankering to do (drive, date, drink, get the senior’s discount *giggle*)
  • You couldn’t really care less – acknowledge it, don’t acknowledge it, you could really care less…it’s just another year, right?
Now I’m willing to bet that every single one of us has experienced one of the above examples, am I right?  And I’m also willing to bet that we can account for each of our birthdays and describe exactly how we felt that day, correct?  Well guess what?  So can our characters.

“Eighteen isn’t very old,” Alice said…. “It’s older than Edward,” I mumbled.
–Bella Swan, New Moon
“Birthdays could be such a bummer when you were older than the country you lived in.”
–Linsay Sands, A Quick Bite
“Who knows who I would be or what I would talk about if I’d been raised in the Capital?  Maybe my biggest regret would be having feathered costumes at my birthday party, too.”  –Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire

My favorite example of birthdays written into novels is from Harry PotterThe Sorcerer’s Stone was the first encounter we had with Harry and how he discovered his magical blood on his eleventh birthday.  With each book we celebrated his birthdays alongside him while new discoveries or plots were brought to light within the surrounding days:
  • Chamber of Secrets: Harry receives a visit from Dobby the house-elf who warned him to not return to Hogwarts.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban: Harry receives a pocket sneakoscope from Ron, a broomstick servicing kit from Hermoine, and The Monster Book from Hagrid.
  • Goblet of Fire: Harry receives one cake each from Sirius, Ron, Hermoine and Hagrid
  • Order of the Phoenix: Harry and his cousin, Dudley, are attacked by Dementors – his defense of which sparks a hearing at the Ministry of Magic.
  • Half-Blood Prince: During Harry’s birthday celebration, Remus reports that Igo Karkaroff is dead, Bill Weasley mentions Florean Forescue had been kidnapped by Death Eaters, and Author Weasley informs everyone that Mr. Ollivander has disappeared – of course Molly did not appreciate such topics being discussed at the time.
  • Deathly Hollows: A party is held for Harry at the Burrow and is interrupted by the Minister of Magic who asks for his support.  His birthday is significant because the Ministry’s trace on him disappears, enabling him to disapperate from one location to the next undetected. He also learns of the gift he received from Sirius Black on his first birthday: a toy broomstick.
Just think: the weaving of Harry’s birthdays into each book brought to life each event/revelation as it unfolded around him, reminding every single one of us that while we sit and celebrate, the world continues to turn and bad news continues to happen all around us. 
The same came be true of our characters and their stories!
All you have to do is think of how your character would react if their birthday were tomorrow:
  • How could that response be used to move the plot forward in an interesting way?
  • Does their reaction bring forth a bit of soul searching that could be used towards their character arc?
  • Could their birthday be used to possibly bring them closer to the one they love?  Or instead, push away their love?
The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to how this personal holiday can be used.  And a writer’s imagination is a force to be reckoned with.  So I challenge you to begin thinking – if you haven’t done so already – about how you can use this every-person, once-a-year experience to your advantage so you can bring the reader closer to your characters.
I’ve used an upcoming 30th birthday for my Destiny Awakened character, Avalyn, as a plot point – something life-changing happens on/around that date and there’s no way she can stop or delay it – she has to face it dead-on while falling in love with a vampire and learning to live a new life. 
So how about you – what types of birthdays have you had?  Can you relate to each of the birthday feeling examples?  Do you have any that aren’t listed?  Have you written a character’s birthday into a story?  How did you use that event – was it mentioned in passing, or was it a significant event?  Anyone else have a birthday coming up? *grin*

2 thoughts on “Writerly Wednesday: Using Birthdays in Your Writing

  1. Great thoughts, Melinda! And I love how you outlined each of Harry's birthdays. It's so cool how JKR used those to set the tone for each new story.

    I think I'm a bit older than you, but I can honestly say I've had birthdays I've totally forgotten. However, I've not worked a b-day into a story yet, and I think that's a great idea, especially for the YA I'm working on now. Thanks!

    And Happy Birthday!!!

  2. Thank you, Susan! I really looked forward to his birthdays with every book in the series – JKR truly is the master of plotting and leaving clues. 🙂

    So glad to know that you'll be able to put this post to good use in your WIP! Birthdays really can set the tone or turn a scene/plot around if they're used properly.

    Thank you for commenting and for the birthday wishes! 😀

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