Having just published my fifth novel and begun my sixth, I’ve found myself experiencing a curious sensation of: Wait. I’ve been here before.
It’s not that I recognize the same problems – each book has many of the same problems, and a dozen others all its own – or that I’m beginning to repeat myself. A certain element of repetition is inevitable as I refine my understanding of certain human conundrums I’m trying to address in my work – the necessity of love despite its limitations, the social nature of not just morality but truth, the hypocrisies of justice. I’ll be tripping over that furniture in the dark for as long as I write.
This time the sense of circularity concerned my characters. And since I’ve staked my pennant on that particular narrative overlook, I found it troubling, this suspicion that I might, in fact, be simply parading out the same cast of players in different costumes.[pullquote][E]very writer has a given theater in his head, a repertory company. –Gore Vidal[/pullquote]
In particular, I realized the decent but troubled cop in The Mercy of the Night, Jordan Skellenger, bore no small resemblance to – guess what – a decent but troubled cop in Done for a Dime, Dennis Murchison.
Not only that, both had politically incorrect, wisecracking sidekicks: Dick Rosamar in The Mercy of the Night, Jerry Stluka in Done for a Dime.
Now by resemblance I mean exactly that: these men were similar, not identical. I have my limitations but I’m not a total nitwit. I did the hard work of making these characters unique. But in the end I had to recognize they were variations on a theme.
How many themes – how many characters – did I in fact possess? How could I know?
[pullquote]I had to accept the humble truth that the number of genuinely unique characters inhabiting my imagination wasn’t infinite.[/pullquote]
This question sent me back to something Gore Vidal said in an interview concerning his own characters:
[E]very writer has a given theater in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee has five, Hemingway has one, Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with them.
The notion (true or not) that as great a writer as Tennessee Williams, who I came to admire when I studied acting, commanded a circle of a mere five characters came as no small shock. And yet as I called to mind the various plays I began to detect some patterns.
- Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire has a sister not only in Blanche but in Serafina in The Rose Tattoo. (Call the character: Plain Jane Awakened to Passion.)
- Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth and Stanley in Streetcar are certainly distinct – in IQ alone – but are they different? (Call this one: Troubled Testosterone.)
- Split Blanche DuBois in three and you get two characters from The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield (the Aging Southern Belle) and her crippled daughter Laura (the Wounded Dreamer), as well as the Princess from Sweet Bird of Youth (the Perpetual Performer).
- And let the gentleman caller pay his visit to the Protective Mother, not her limping daughter, and give him a bit of Chance’s and Stanley’s virility, you turn Amanda from Glass Menagerie into Serafina from The Rose Tattoo.
This epiphany was both sobering and liberating. I had to accept the humble truth that the number of genuinely unique characters inhabiting my imagination wasn’t infinite; on the contrary, it was necessarily limited. But if that’s also true of writers as estimable as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, even Shakespeare, where’s the shame in it?[pullquote]It’s a bit deflating to realize these individuals I took so much time to render uniquely in fact conformed to a type, but I’ve come to accept that as a challenge, not a fault. [/pullquote]
I also realized that by recognizing this humbling fact instead of resisting it I could more deliberately fashion those characters into unique variations instead of merely repeating myself (and them).
And so I set about trying to identify who in fact made up my core repertory of characters. After a little reflection, I came up with a decent beginning. There are other characters in my head, of course, most of whom so far largely serve secondary roles, but for the sake of my argument, here goes:
- Lone Wolf Romantic: This character has been my hero twice (Dan Abatangelo in The Devil’s Redhead, and Phelan Tierney in The Mercy of the Night). He’s fundamentally a loner but is fiercely loyal when he opens his heart, and has a weak spot for the wounded. Though he considers himself more a lover and helper than a fighter he does not shrink from battle. Locked in to a goal, he’s a heat-seeking missile. He plays in a minor key but not without humor. In both incarnations, he has fallen for:
- The Redheaded Reality Check: Another way to describe her might be the Tough Cookie with a Hennaed Heart of Gold. She has my mother’s red hair but the fire and beauty and down-to-earth common sense of my best friend’s Aunt Nina. Maybe that’s where she comes from. She was the mesmerizing mother I wanted, not the troubling one I got. As twenty-one dealer Shel Beaudry in The Devil’s Redhead and oncology nurse Cass Montesano in The Mercy of the Night she plays the earthy realist to her lover’s reckless nobility. She’s not always connected to a man: She’s also the single-mom coke dealer in the story “Pretty Little Parasite.” I may get around to changing her hair color someday. (Actually, I do, in her younger, more musical incarnations: She’s the Salvadoran singer Lupe in Do They Know I’m Running? And in Done for a Dime, she’s the tiny, indomitable classical pianist Nadya Lazarenko. Why did I make both musical? You have to be tough to make it as a woman in music.)
- Felonious Monk: This character, my antihero, has a moral code but is not without sin. He makes serious mistakes but self-corrects before skidding into true immorality. He’s appeared as both Skellenger and Murchison – the Decent but Troubled Cops mentioned above – and as the rodeo rider turned art forger Tuck Mercer in the novel I’m writing now. There are shades of him in Abatangelo, who is otherwise a Lone Wolf Romantic (and this reveals how these characters are mutable, not fixed, and wander the landscape a bit.) His Latino incarnation was Happy in Do They Know I’m Running?, where he assumed the mantle of both brooding former gang member and penitent son. In one instance the character did indulge in true evil, but paid, and gained a chance to redeem himself; this was the disgraced ex-cop and SWAT Team sniper Phil Strock in Blood of Paradise.
- Salty Dog/Savvy Cat: The aforementioned politically incorrect, wisecracking sidekick. He can be stocky (Stluka), matinee handsome (Rosamar), scarred with war wounds (Godo in Do They Know I’m Running?), or simply a Pacific Islander fond of western attire (Gordy Matafeo, the “Samoan Six-Gun,” in The Mercy of the Night) but he invariably, when it comes to speaking his mind, believes in: Damn the torpedoes. He’s also skilled at what he does, takes the job very seriously, knows what hides in the darkest corners of the room, and never suffers a fool. He can also be a she: Tía Lucha in Do They Know I’m Running?, who’s not quite the wag the others are. Call her sadder-but-wisecracking.
- Young Buck Hero: A character I had trouble getting right both times he appeared in a book. I tended to make him too Luke Skywalker, not enough Holden Caulfield. In the end I overcame that limitation by either giving him a serious wound (Jude in Blood of Paradise) or a flaw (a capacity for vengeful cruelty, in the case of Roque in Do They Know I’m Running?). In female form, she’s Jacquelina Garza in The Mercy of the Night. I had trouble with her as well, but the other way around. Her wounds were obvious – abducted at age eight by a child predator, for starters – and her flaws abundant. My initial problem with her wasn’t a failure to see her darker side, but understanding her dreams.
- The Noble Elder: He can be a scientist (Axel Odelburg in Blood of Paradise), a Salvadoran truck driver (Tío Faustino in Do They Know I’m Running?), or an elderly African American librarian (Carvela Grimes in Done for a Dime), but in each case the years have brought wisdom. The character gets that death is coming: What’s to lose by having the courage to be decent? (A more troubled, tempestuous, contrary incarnation of the character is the aging jazz musician, Raymond “Strong” Carlisle, in Done for a Dime.)
- Slick Bastard: This guy’s the center of the universe, just ask him. He knows the game is rigged but he’s got it figured out. He’s the smartest guy in the room and the first one in the lifeboats. If you’re unlucky enough to be his target – or his lover – you’ll probably end up calling him a narcissist or a sociopath, but labels are for suckers. When waxing philosophical, he’ll tell you life is war, so fight to win. He’s been Rick Ferry in Done for a Dime and Bill Malvasio in Blood of Paradise (in fact, these are just two aliases for the same character, who appears in both books). Stripped of the primping vanity – but not the malevolence – and given a sex change, the character becomes Nina Garza, Jacquelina’s mother, in The Mercy of the Night. Split in two, he’ll be both the corrupt ex-judge Gideon Litmann and his lawyer henchman Don Rankin in the upcoming novel.
- Evil Ass Clown: This guy aspires to Slick Bastard, but as the saying goes: No way in hell. In his neighborhood, Fool’s Gold is coin of the realm, and his brilliant plans never end well. He was the firebug Manny Turpin in Done for a Dime. In The Devil’s Redhead he appeared as the haunted screw-up Frank Maas (sorry, Don – but note different spelling!).
I’d be surprised if you didn’t recognize these characters – if you haven’t, in fact, used variants of them in your own writing. That’s the sneaky truth about characters: they’re unique iterations of types we all recognize.
These characters exist in the shadowland of my mind, just beyond the scrim of consciousness. As probably became obvious as I described their various incarnations, they have an element of the shape-shifter to them, and are capable of not just serving one role in different ways but adding elements of different roles to a particular embodiment. To return to the repertory analogy, they are the humble actors who step forward to play the parts I’ve assigned them, gaining a few pounds here, having a darker childhood there, losing a son or a marriage this time, serving time in prison another.
Also notice how much what unites the type is the role that’s played. There is a thematic and situational element to their similitude, the result of their existence within a story. (One way to escape cookie-cutter characters is to realize they have a life beyond the story, and to explore that in imaginative detail. Your story is just a chapter in their life.)
It’s a bit deflating to realize these individuals I took so much time to render uniquely in fact conformed to a type, but I’ve come to accept that as a challenge, not a fault. The ability to move beyond type – where behavior is locked in – to a character capable of change, contradiction, surprise, is what separates better characterization from worse. If I don’t allow these characters to break type — do the unexpected, the seemingly unthinkable or even impossible — I’m not just being lazy. I’m selling short myself, the reader, and even these mysterious creatures themselves.
We’re all writing variations on stories that have been told for centuries. Little surprise we wouldn’t write the same one more than once, the same characters aboard, just with a zig left here where before we zagged right, one set in Vegas, the other the dark side of the moon. (Wait — those are the same place.)[pullquote]That’s the sneaky truth about characters: they’re unique iterations of types we all recognize.[/pullquote]
This is where I’m supposed to talk about archetypes, and I’m sure some of the characters I described above wouldn’t feel alien in a Jungian showroom.
But that line of thinking has always struck me as a little ooga-booga. I consider Jung a genius, Joseph Campbell an fascinating if flawed scholar, and Christopher Vogler a brilliant teacher. (The Writer’s Journey is an indispensable text for writers, period.) But there’s also a lockstep, bandwagon feel to the Hero’s Journey meme that makes the contrarian in me itch. I was trained in math, where we were taught to think deeply about simple things. It’s been my unfortunate experience that far too many acolytes who sing in the Joseph Campbell Choir tend instead to think simply about deep things.
I have no clue as to whether these characters tap into some deep mythic Unconscious. I tend to prefer the view that they arise from my personal unconscious and memory, given my materialist inclinations. As already noted, I do recognize they have the shape-shifting quality of dream figures. Also, like I said, I recognize both my mother and Vince Militello’s Aunt Nina in the Redheaded Reality Check. And I grew up knowing not a few Evil Ass Clowns. Even more humbling, I see shades of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason in the Lone Wolf Romantic. (Figure that one out, Dr. Jung.)
This last example raises a cautionary element to our enterprise. There are indeed characters based on other characters – the whole Tap into Archetype approach often degenerates into this – the problem being that this can all too easily lead to what I call the Trap of Type: writing stories based on other stories with characters based on other characters.
The way out of that trap is to look around and look within, take your story ideas from actual experience and add elements to your characters taken from real people you know well. “You can’t make this stuff up” is a testament to the fact that nothing is more creative than real life.[pullquote]“You can’t make this stuff up” is a testament to the fact that nothing is more creative than real life.[/pullquote]
Which brings me to my second, concluding quote.
A month and a half before his death, when he knew he was terminally ill, John Updike wrote a poem to the people he grew up with in tiny Shillington, Pennsylvania, in appreciation for their giving him the material he would mine for the rest of his writing life:
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs
So, using Gore Vidal’s calculus, Updike apparently had a repertory company almost double the size of Shakespeare’s. Take that, Bard of Avon!
Do you recognize certain repeat characters or types in your stories? Do they speak to certain themes or dramatic situations you see yourself returning to over and over?
If you have repeated variations on a certain character type, has this been deliberate or largely unconscious as yet?
Do these “repeat characters” or “type-cast players” speak to some deeper psychic reality for you? In what way?
Do you ever use people from your own past for material as characters? Has this helped you escape the Trap of Type?