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High School: The Tattoos Your Characters Can’t Conceal

TomTatt small [1]

This guy was in the Hillbilly group in my high school

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” Alas, in looking at the short-sighted, petty gyrations of our politicians, “terror” doesn’t quite capture the dystopian menace. But I want to use Mr. Vonnegut’s subtext here to illustrate some thoughts about characters in your stories.

High school was a yeasty time: a time of turbulent yearnings, of bad complexions, of emotional cliffs, of hormonal bombardments. Enemies were defined and reviled, friends formed and clung to, selves agitated and supplanted. An overheard compliment might make you Zeus for a day, but a single smirk the next would fling you to some dark hall of Hades.

Terrifying as those times were, their living imprint aligns with Vonnegut’s terror. Or maybe Faulkner’s, when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I think we carry a lot of high school with us, for better or worse. But as writers, we have a little trick to exorcise time’s weights: we can inflict our characters with some of those emotional roilings, no matter if those characters are sixteen or sixty. Because, even if they are deeper under the skin, the tracks and tracings from those emotions aren’t really past.

And because I so much like to talk about myself, and no one is in the room to shush me, I’ll draw on my own high school squirmings as the basis for this exploration into character and motivation.

The Outsider
I felt like an outsider in my southern California high school, never quite meshing with the “in” groups. Not athletic enough (though I tried) to be an athlete , not stoned enough (though I tried) to be a stoner, not social enough to be a “sosh,” not menacing enough to be a low-rider, not blond enough to be a surfer.

The outsider is a definite persona to hang a character’s hat on. The shades of being an outsider—alienation, resentment, jealousy, pride—and in the extremes, mental illness, can make a character behave in devious ways. If your character is an outsider at work, would she find some underhanded way to undermine the company’s harmony? Would the outsider at a family reunion provoke a fight (and one that’s unwinnable)? Could you use an outsider character’s perspective to use him or her like Shakespeare’s fool, and speak truth to power?

The Rebel
I’d be inflating my status to say I was a real rebel in high school, but I had my moments. As much as I could, in my sixteenth and seventeen years, I went barefoot. And that meant almost always. (I hitchhiked from LA to Seattle and back barefoot.) I brought a pair of shoes to school, but I just carried them around, until one of the school’s officers (the “narcs”) would command me to put them on. Out of narc-sight, I’d immediately take them off, which I did in class as well. (My feet, as you might imagine, were pieces of work.)

Your rebels can push things in your stories. They are enemies of stasis and the status quo—experts at saying “no.” (Or, “Fuck no!”) Your rebel character might be charming in so many ways, but have the cops pull him over, and his sharp argument will send him to jail. He might break up his marriage because his wife begs him to cut his beard. A simmering rebel could be a good character turn: she sings hymns in the pews for six months, but when the priest tells her that her Sunday dresses are too tight, she becomes a Buddhist.

The Criminal
I am the youngest of four children in my family. Both of my sisters worked regular jobs in high school, as did my brother. I shoplifted. I had a small business at school, selling to my fellow students the hundreds of albums, the cassettes, the portable tape players and other electronics that I stole from stores. I practiced various shoplifting methods in front of a mirror, and later instructed some of my high school friends in the look and gait a proper thief would take to walk out of a store carrying a new briefcase as though it held that week’s book report. I had a splendidly gaseous way of haughtily declaring that I was “sticking it to the man” by “liberating” these goods.

The criminal in your story can’t be trusted. There’s often an amoral aspect in criminality, wielded by someone who thinks the laws don’t apply; he or she is “bigger” than the commoners. Amoral behavior raises the hackles on other story characters because it’s jarring, inexplicable.[pullquote]There’s often an amoral aspect in criminality, wielded by someone who thinks the laws don’t apply; he or she is “bigger” than the commoners. Amoral behavior raises the hackles on other story characters because it’s jarring, inexplicable. [/pullquote]Setting up a story’s criminal so that he is first trusted by his lover, or his bank, or his government lights a fuse on a bomb that later explodes. And emotional criminals can wreak as much havoc as legal ones.

The Witness
I mentioned surfers and low-riders (“cruisers”) earlier. They were sworn enemies at my high school. There were occasional fights, but the standard exchanges between the two, singles or in groups, were looks of mutual contempt. One day in the locker room, a cruiser I particularly disliked started pushing around a small surfer guy who was loosely one of my friends. All the other boys, myself included, watched as it escalated, and it was clear that the surfer was going to get thrashed.

Until this other cruiser who was in our gym class, a giant guy who barely ever spoke, came up behind the aggressive cruiser and literally lifted him, using his arm around his neck, off the ground. “Let the little guy alone,” was all he said, and he dropped the red-faced, choking assailant to the ground. We all moved away, goggle-eyed. New information: Not are cruisers are losers.

The witness is a character that has seen something or has information that changes his or her mind, and that info could possibly be used to change others. The witness could have a fixed point of view early in your story, creating some tension, but could have that view toppled, by a single event or series of events. Or the witnessing becomes a secret, that in the carrying becomes a heavier and heavier story weight, because it has to be concealed or sublimated.

The Mourner
Between my junior and senior years, I befriended a sophomore student named Joyce. She was smart, athletic, artistic and unconventional. She was beautiful, but seemed so at ease, almost indifferent to her looks. We spent time together, and I fell in love. The worst day of my life to that point was the day she said “no” when I asked her to be my girlfriend. The best day of my life to that point was the next day, when she called me back and said “yes.” I reveled in our relationship; it felt like sweet delirium to me.

But then I betrayed her—why?—with an old girlfriend. (Note: The Betrayer would serve as a persona here too, but the need for brevity precludes.) We continued to be together, but there was a taint. She told me she didn’t know me, and a fair time later, when she broke up with me, told me that she felt we were just “swimming on the surface,” our relationship not quite real. Years later—while I continued to ask for word of her from a mutual friend—on a rafting trip in Colombia with her boyfriend, she disappeared. Their bodies were never found; she was 25. I mourned losing her in high school—I mourn her now.

The mourner can be unpredictable, and that quality can be used in different ways to explore character. A woman in your story loses her younger sister: she might withdraw into herself, be unavailable to friends, be prickly at work. Or perhaps overtly hostile, trusting no one. A man’s wife dies, and his orderly, staid life falls apart. Parents lose a child, and then lose one another, but one returns to working with and in the world, and the other loses the world entirely. Grief also mixes well with guilt and regret, for extra tang.

People, Not Types
Of course, as described above, these are all types, straw men or straw women, distortions or exaggerations. Stories are built on people, not types—if you “insert rebel here” at some prescribed point in your story, you’ll just have a dry formula, not something that bleeds, prods or inspires.[pullquote]Stories are built on people, not types—if you “insert rebel here” at some prescribed point in your story, you’ll just have a dry formula, not something that bleeds, prods or inspires.[/pullquote] Your characters have to be shaded, colored with that complex of swirling emotions, urges, self-delusions and gestures great and small that make up the utterly weird things we know as human beings.

Something must expand the type into a human: the only solace your mourner knows is to raise rare lovebirds in cages; your witness must have their cup of Lipton tea precisely at two. The details (and their meanings) are what swirl the story. Of course you can combine some of the types, or have their expression be intermittent quirk or half-measure: maybe they are only criminals under the full moon, or when whiskey is part of the picture.

I think you can legitimately and artistically pull from the morass of high school, from your own flittery feelings, and pull from those of your friends (and your not-so-friends). We are such absorbent sponges in high school: I was influenced as much by Hermann Hesse as I was by Carlos Casteneda. Touched by the Grateful Dead as much as by my love of an aged Willie Mays. Entranced by language, but too lazy to do more than languidly admire its possibilities.

By the way, my mother never found out about my shoplifting until just a few years ago. She still doesn’t know about all the LSD, so let’s just keep our lips zipped about that.

So, ye of WU, can you draw on your high school days for any character ferment? Do you think the old adage, “The child is the father of the man” holds truth? I’ll be traveling later today and tomorrow, so I might be tardy getting to some responses, but get to them I will. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

About Tom Bentley [2]

Tom Bentley [3] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [4].