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?

 

No Sleep Tonight

Sometimes there are songs you just can’t get out of your head. Beau’s story started with a country song, and that has been a pattern for him. Take the time to listen to this, before or after you read.
Headlights at night-790596
         I don’t know why I went there that night. I should have known what I would find. I did know. There’s no other excuse for driving by her house when everyone else in Hayden—except the drunks and the hookers—was asleep. I’m not the kind that likes pain, hell, I’ve had enough of that to last until they bury me. More than enough. And I definitely never though I’d be the one to say it, but there was just something about that girl. I could say that she reminded me of Mama, that she needed someone to protect her—something Mama never had. I could say it was all about her long legs and her body and the way her lips felt on mine. But, honest to God, I don’t know. Maybe it was a cocktail of both. I knew the first time I kissed her she was bad for me, knew it like I knew Mama was gone and never coming back. Knowing something’s the truth never stopped me from acting stupid before, and it sure as hell didn’t that night.
         Whatever the damned reason, there I was, driving too fast down her street where all the little houses were dark. They weren’t nice like the big, new houses closer to town that all looked exactly the same except for the color of the cars in the perfect driveways. But to me, they looked like castles. They had real walls and some even had front porches—the kind not covered in old AstroTurf or roofed with corrugated aluminum. The moms and dads and their two and a half kids were all asleep inside. No one was drunk or yelling, none of the neighbors were lighting anything on fire because they were too high to make hot dogs. They made the trailer look even more like the piece of shit it was.
         Her house was on the left and I recognized Judd’s truck in the front. It was impossible to miss, it took up the whole damn driveway. I didn’t care who I woke up at this point, I gunned the old Chevy over the curb. The tires slipped a little as they bit into the grass. I was breathing hard when I threw it in park and my heart was hammering like it was fit to burst, but no lights came on and there wasn’t a sound besides the old engine ticking. Even the dogs here didn’t bark at night.My fingers slipped on the steering wheel, leaving the shine of sweat behind them. My headlights still blazed through the windows and I saw that the curtains were pulled tightly shut, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see everything.
         I could see their shadows through the curtains as they moved around in the house. I could even see the outline of the bottle Judd kept bringing to his lips. I saw him finally put it down when she wrapped her arms around him and gave him something else to occupy his hands. I turned away; my hands were shaking as I reached for the gearshift, thinking I’d better back up and get the hell out of there. I’ve been pissed off before. I’ve been mad enough to see red, but I never felt anything like this–like I couldn’t breathe, like there wasn’t any air in the truck even though all the windows were rolled down. My throat started to get tight, I felt like I’d gotten stung by a scorpion or something. There was a pounding in my ears and behind my eyes and I couldn’t even see the gearshift to put the truck in reverse. I opened the door and slid out until my boots hit the grass. I took deep breaths through my nose like you do when you drink too much and think you’re going to be sick. There was a 24 pack in the back of the truck and if I was here, I might as well do things right.
         I wondered if they knew they were putting on a show for anyone who cared to see, like those old clubs where the women used to dance behind screens. I could even hear the sounds of music and laughter when the cicadas paused their singing. I had a pile of empty beer cans next to me and the buzzing in my ears had traveled down to the tips of my toes. I felt hot all over, even though there was a breeze blowing through the trees, making them sway like the two shadows I could see inside. I wondered if they could see the headlights and if they just didn’t care, but I knew they weren’t likely to notice anything going on outside that room. I shook my head as I drained the beer from the can in my hand. I was a sucker for trouble and no mistake, but I was in over my head this time. Just like me, thinking I could set somebody else free. Hell, I couldn’t even get out of this town. I knew what real pain felt like—watching Mama waste away until there was nothing left but beeping machines and bills nobody paid. But this was different, somehow. I didn’t think anyone could hurt me again after losing Mama. Maybe one day I’d learn how often I’m dead wrong. Maybe I was a little crazy–it was 3 am and here I was sitting in the middle of her front lawn while she was in there with him.
         One of the beer cans started sliding down the hood and I grabbed it, steadying myself as it doubled for a minute. I crushed it, feeling the sharp edges pinch against my palm as the last drops of beer dribbled onto the Chevy. I hauled my arm back as far as it would go and threw it. It fell short of the window and I reached for another one.
         There were twenty three more and from the looks of that window, I had all night.

photo

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.

Conversations With An Unfinished Character

I’ve always thought the mark of really excellent writing–fiction or otherwise–is being able to clearly see the character or the “subject” leap off the page before your eyes.  The great stories that I have read and enjoyed are more like eavesdropping on the conversations and spying on the lives of the characters.  It is, perhaps, a sign of obsession when you start actually feeling like the characters in books are your friends–but that’s a self psychoanalysis for another post. I have always preferred stories that are character-driven rather than plot-driven.  If you need some explanation–a Jane Austen novel (or movie) is character driven where as something like the Bourne books (or movies) are more plot driven.  Think drama versus action–to put it in a nutshell.  I am always pleasantly surprised when something I have written myself has enough life that I can picture the character sitting right where I left him or her, waiting for me to pick up the conversation where we left out.

As I was thinking along these strange lines, I wondered what it would be like if I could sit down for just a moment with one of my main characters–if you haven’t read (or at least skimmed) the Southern Summer Night short story I wrote, you may want to take a peek.  So, if I could sit down with Beau for a bit, I see it going something like this…

*****

I’m sitting outside an old ice cream shoppe–the kind typical to southern towns still clinging to to the past in every way they can.  It’s a gorgeous day–sunny and cool and breezy–and the trees actually change color in this little Alabama town. I see him walking towards me. He has a little bit of a swagger, but that might just be the boots he’s wearing. His jeans are faded and so is his plaid button down, but I can tell that they came with a hefty price tag.  His hair is longer than it was when I last left him—a high school kid trying to get away.  It’s not as curly as I thought it was though and he’s taller than I pictured. He’s frowning at me and I can’t see his eyes from behind his Rayban aviators.  His hands are stuffed in his pockets and he stalks up to the table and stares down at me for a moment.  I notice now that his shoulders are hunched and he looks highly uncomfortable.  Then, I remember it has been quite some time since he has been back in this tiny Alabama town.

“Will you sit down?” I ask.

He yanks out the chair and the iron legs scrape loudly across the concrete. He finally removes the mirrored glasses and tucks them in the neckline of his shirt. It is easy to see that the years have added a sophistication to him, but when he finally speaks, his voice is the same slow, southern drawl I pictured. Not the caricature often exemplified in movies, but the real deal.

“It’s been a while,” he says, folding his arms on top of the wrought iron table and staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. The lashes around them are just as I pictured–obnoxiously long on a man.

“I know…” I feel guilty. “I’ve been busy.”

“You left me researching in the school library,” he accuses me.

I wince, remembering that right now he is stranded just there–in his high school library searching for his mother’s sister.

“Well, I did write you coming back here,” I protest. “Some of it, anyway.”

“Yeah and one helluva homecoming it’s been.  You sure know how to welcome a guy back,” he leans back and squints at me through the sun.  It brings out the red in his hair and I’m still trying to figure out how the scrawny eighteen year old Beau I last wrote has turned into this tall, confident man in his late twenties. Because I haven’t quite written the middle yet.

“Sorry…but you have been away a long time. Anyway, this is my story, here.”

“No, it’s my story, you’re just writing it.”

Dang. He has a point.

“I’m getting there…I just need to fill in the gaps. And I got stuck…and a little bored.”

“You’re bored?” he raises his dark eyebrows. “I’m still stuck in the high school library…which, by the way looks a lot like the one at your high school. Am I going to find my aunt? How do I end up back here ten years later like this?” He gestures at his clothes.

“It’s all up here,” I tap my temple…which isn’t entirely true…but a good chunk of it is floating around in there, mixed in with other half-thought characters and scenes from other projects.

“Want to fill me in?”

“That would be cheating,” I say smugly. Plus I haven’t quite figured it out yet…

I look at my watch and realize what time it is, that I have to get up early, that I have to do laundry and I stand up from the table.

“Where are you going?” he asks, looking surprise.

“I have to go…I have things to do.”

“Well try writing the rest of my life when you get the chance,” he says, with some of the bitterness that I had hoped would have faded in ten years. It hasn’t.

As I lean back from the keyboard, Beau is still sitting there, arms crossed on the table and staring off down the road in that tiny Alabama town. At the same time, he is sitting in the library at an ancient PC desktop computer, tapping away at the keys, ten years in the past.

“I’ll write the middle…and the end,” I tell myself, and him, as the ice cream shoppe and the fluorescent lights of the library both blend together, blur, and fade away.