Character Studies

“Why make that guy a hero?” “More irresponsible behavior?” “She cooks too much.”

Those are just a few of the comments I have gotten over the years on the characters I choose to portray in fiction. The problem is, I don’t just make people up. I put real people into my stories. They aren’t perfect. They don’t make what other folks might call good decisions. Sometimes they cook..

I started my first novel, The Year of the Crow, in the early 80’s. It is full of Deadheads and bikers, people who are not heroes in the way that we usually think of them, people who daily make irresponsible decisions, and yes, people whose women do the cooking. For the most part. Because I eventually learned to cook. I also learned that caring for other people was a radical thing in itself in the early Reagan years.

I distinctly remember sitting in a darkened room with a bunch of people, most of them with beards and scraggly hair, most of whom I knew as kind folks, all of us stoned to the bone and seeing our dreams play out in the space between our minds and the ceiling. I remember thinking, these are good people. They deserve to be in stories.

I doubt that many of them are alive today – or perhaps even I, their champion, have underestimated them. But there is one place where they definitely live on. They are at a party in The Year of the Crow. And they are portrayed as I saw them then. As people worth writing about. As beloved characters in my own personal mythology. Sybil and Ellie cook for their men because that is what they do. They enjoy it. They may be perpetuating a role, but it is a role that they believe should be valued. And they refuse to give it up.

My second novel, Ghosts of the Heart, is – as I tried to explain at the time – my effort to write a character who makes wise choices. I think Sophie is delightful as she stands, but not necessarily more so than the women who joined Sybil on her adventures in Crow. And Kari/Karina/Karen, of A Dream of Houses, are split along the lines of lifestyle choices. One memorable critique of my early drafts was that I obviously had never lived in the suburbs. She had a salient point.

Later short stories find women smoking and drinking and doing drugs and falling in love with loveable con-men, making “irresponsible” decisions all along the way. There is a woman unable to leave her crack-addict boyfriend hanging out to dry. A drama queen you couldn’t help but love. These women will suffer the consequences someday, but they will never be judged for their actions. You will never find them regretting smoking a joint, behaving badly or putting up with bad behavior. They are who they are and I have always loved them for that.

The guys, too. A heroin junkie musician. A drunken poet. I should weave a story about me and the ex-Nazi biker and the night we spent together with Jack Daniels and Frank Zappa, him telling stories about life on the hardscrabble farms of the cut-over and me telling stories about Jesse Jackson and the civil rights movement in Chicago. About how after that, whenever “Little Pink Houses” came on the juke box, we found each other’s eyes, nodded and smiled. Not because of Zappa, because John Mellencamp was no Zappa. Just because of the line “ain’t that America.” In this age of Trump, I hope he remembers me.

These are the people I have gravitated to all my life. This is where I found ancient myths still being played out for real. They are the ones who reminded me that all the myths and fairy tales are true. They were all once just stories that we told one another about one another. I'm not alone in this.

My characters are all heroes to me. I love their irresponsible grasshopper ways. I love how they take care of each other. I hope I have taken enough care bringing them to life on the page. I want you to learn to love them too.