Spotlight on Secondary Characters

Headlights at night-790596

Photo originally used for “No Sleep Tonight

Writers often talk about how their characters will develop minds of their own, how they’ll do things the author never would have expected when they first started writing them. I think this phenomenon is wonderful but I’m not sure it’s quite happened to me in the way many writers describe. It’s a side-effect of knowing your characters really well–something that is critically important if you want other people (i.e. readers) to see your characters as real people and not as cardboard Flat Stanleys on the page.

I have recently been working on some stories related to Southern Summer Night. I probably know more about Beau (the protagonist) than I do about a lot of my other characters. One of the newer stories was for class and and one element of the feedback I received was surprising–everyone wanted to know more about Beau’s relationship with his father; they didn’t have the benefit of all the information in my head about that particular S.O.B.

At the end of my master’s program, I have to present a thesis. So, sometime before that, I have to write said thesis. I originally thought I’d do a novel—I always wrote more novel-length stories than short stories–but that’s looking less likely. Short story collections are another option. However, if you know anything about short story collections, they’re like a fashion runway collection. Everything has to fit together somehow, it has to be cohesive. It has to have a theme. There’s another kind of short story collection where the stories are linked. Whether by place (Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one well known example) or character (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout — there is some argument over whether this is a novel or short story collection, but for the sake of argument…work with me), the stories have a link that’s more solid than a common theme.

I started thinking about perhaps writing linked stories about Beau and his hometown and his family. The obvious first choice was Beau’s father, Mason. Everyone wanted to know why Beau hated him so much–and was there more to Mason than just being an abusive, alcoholic caricature? I started writing about Mason after figuring out what could have happened in his life–what disappointment, what slings and arrows (as it were) drove him to be the miserable, foul person he is in Beau’s life. The funny thing is, knowing as I do where he ends, I feel bad for the guy as I write about his younger days. I wonder if there was anything he could have done to change his fate. And then I realize while technically he has no choice because I am his Creator (insert maniacal laughter), it is his choices that turn him into the “monster” he becomes–and that’s his real downfall. That he chose poorly again and again.

What about you? Do you ever write about secondary or side-line characters and learn new things about them AND about your main character? Do you know or write the “back story” for characters–even if it isn’t included in your stories? Do you ever feel like you’re torturing your poor characters and should cut them a break?


Trailers and Tailgates

Another Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig. In typical Chuck fashion, we had to write about a “Bad Dad.” Possible trigger warning for some. I’m blessed to have a father that is nothing like the one we were supposed to write about. This piece contains characters from Southern Summer Night .

        Even with the pillow clamped tightly over his head to block out the sun and the neighbors arguing outside the thin metal walls, Beau still heard the roar of fury and what sounded like a full beer splattering down the living room wall. Rolling over, he squinted at the sunlight; the bent mini blinds had gaps like a rotting smile. He fumbled for his phone with sleep-numbed hands and checked the time. 7:45 am on Sunday. And the old man this gone already.
        Beau pulled his pillow over his face again and tried to go back to sleep. The heat washed through the window and he flung the covers away and sat up with a sigh. He pulled on his jeans and the least wrinkled shirt he saw and had his boots and socks in his hand, his other fingers fumbling for the window catch. Before he could climb out the window, the furious sounds in the main room of the trailer became coherent.
         “Beau! Where are you? You worthless—get your ass out here,” there was an ominous creak as Beau’s father’s bulk strained against his recliner.
        Beau dropped his boots on the floor and reached for the wooden bat he kept by his bed, but the creaking stopped and the yelling started again. Beau thought about taking the bat with him, but left it leaning against the wall as he pulled on his boots and stuffed his phone and keys into his back pocket. He could be out the front door and in his truck by the time his dad stood up.
         “What?” he said to the back of the balding head as he walked out into the narrow hallway. The scent of sweat and beer and stale smoke met his nose more strongly than usual. The old man must’ve actually gone out to the bar last night.
         “Y’talk to me like that boy?” he slurred, craning his bull neck towards the sound of Beau’s voice.
         “Yeah,” Beau said, not bothering to move into the his old man’s line of sight. “What? It’s 8 am.”
         “Don’t give a damn what time it is,” he struggled to shift himself in the chair so that he could look at Beau.
         Beau opened the fridge, letting the cool air wash over him as he grabbed the carton of orange juice, checked the date, and chugged from the bottle.
         “You listenin’ to me, boy?” he asked, making the last word a curse.
         “You ain’t sayin anything,” Beau muttered, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
         “You come here, boy, you don’t talk to me like that,” the stained gray recliner groaned again.
         “Can hear you just fine from here,” Beau leaned back against the fridge.
         “If your mother was alive—”
         “Don’t you talk about her,” Beau shot away from the kitchen; the spotted, stinking carpet sank in places where the floor sagged. “Don’t you ever talk about her.”
         There was a wheezing laugh from the chair and his father swiveled to face him. His once-white wife-beater was stained with sweat, beer, and black grease; he hadn’t changed since his last shift at Kay’s Towing. Several days growth of wiry black and gray stubble coated his jowls and his eyes were blurred and bloodshot. He laughed again, missing the disgust that curled Beau’s lip.
         “There’s some fire in you, boy,” he said, taking a long pull from the beer in his hand. “I wondered if you done got all her mouth and all her pretty looks and none of the man what got you.” He gave Beau a look that set his teeth on edge.
         “I said, don’t talk about her,” Beau said, voice barely audible over the television.
         “I’ll talk about who I want, when I want, boy,” his father leaned forward, sloshing more beer onto the filthy carpet. “I know the woman hid some money here somewhere, or gave it to you.”
         “I don’t know anything—” Beau began.
         “Don’t lie to me, boy! I know she left you somethin’, and you’re gonna give it to me,” his voice turned almost wheedling.
         “I don’t have anything,” Beau said, looking him straight in the eye. “Any money she left, you spent on booze and pool and whores.”
         The watery blue eyes widened before the overgrown brows settled down over them.
         “You don’t talk to me like that you worthless, sonofabitch,” the beer can in his hand crumpled as his fist tightened. He didn’t even notice the beer running over his meaty fingers.
         “I’ll talk however the hell I want, you sorry, useless excuse for a man,” Beau’s voice rose. “If I had any money from her, you think I’d still be here? You think I’d still live in this filthy hellhole with you? If I had my way you’dve drunk yourself to death the day I was born.”
         Beau realized he was shaking and tried to stop the tremors that seemed to reach his very bones. His jaw ached from clenching his teeth and his ragged fingernails bit into his palms.
         “What do you need the money for this time, you pathetic drunk?” Beau asked. “You lose another game of pool? You gamble on the wrong team again? What happens if you don’t pay, old man? Do they break your fingers? Beat you up a little?” Beau felt a smile twist his lips. “I’ll hold the door open for ’em.”
         Beau had never seen the old man shocked into silence, his mouth slackened and his watery eyes, for once, held something other than anger. Beau turned away from that look and swung open the screen door, stepping out of the trailer and letting the door slam behind him, rattling. The engine of his truck came to life as the badly aimed beer can hit his tailgate with a ringing clang. His father swayed on the porch, face red from anger and exertion. Beau gave him one last glance in the mirror before he hit the accelerator.
         “Happy father’s day, Pop,” he said.