Ode to People I Barely Knew

Some of my most inspired characters are people I barely knew.  Like John K.  I guess he was the antithesis of me.  I was youth, he was age.  I was nimble; he was cast in his own oversized frame.  I floated, he was anchored.  I had everything figured out; he was wise to his folly.  I knew the bible verses I was taught, he knew the ones they didn’t and STILL had faith.  Air flowed through my lungs without thought or appreciation, and for John air seemed to be consciously pulled in, circulated and expelled with every labored breath.  I haven’t written much yet, but when I do, John’s character is always knocking wanting to get into every story.  He is rich, weighty, and the fact that I knew him even lightly is a huge gift.

Then there’s Rosemary M.  I knew her even less than John.  To this day, when I see purple clothing or hats, I think, “Rosemary! (smiley face)”.  She probably would have preferred the name Violate.  She was the mother of someone much older than me, so to me, she was ANCIENT.  Somehow, she is still alive, so quick math estimation tells me she couldn’t have been nearly as ancient in the 70’s as I thought she was.  I don’t think I ever said a word to her.  I wish I had, because I know now (through Christmas letters my mother receives) that she has a wonderfully mordant sense of humor.  My favorite quote, when someone asked her how she was doing she replied, “I am deteriorating and so is my house”.  All true, I’m sure, but how many people answer an insincere question with such authenticity?  I am confident she has no recollection of me whatsoever, but shards of her will live on in my storytelling for (hopefully) decades to come.

I have to mention Brother.  He wiggled his way into a short story I wrote, and I barely knew him.  When he came knocking I let him in, but wished I had known him better.  I remember his face.  The quintessential face that comes to mind when I have to write of a happy, rural bachelor that never had 2 dimes to rub together.  BUT he always had candy in his pockets for my friend and me (not creepy, he was a good and trusted friend of her family).  He had snaggleteeth, and liked to show them off.  He wore a lot of flannel, and never looked overly clean.  I guess he was funny, because I remember a lot of laughter being around him, but I don’t remember single thing he ever said.   I don’t even know what his name was; we just called him Brother.

On one level or another, I have used all three of these characters in stories.  I wonder if the fact that I barely know them helps me to use them.  Maybe if I knew them better, I would be paralyzed by reality; thinking, “Oh, Brother wouldn’t say that.”  As it is, his memory is just mute enough that he adapts to any storyline or even personality.  Hmmmmm … I’d love to explore this idea of where our characters come from … I really don’t believe writers come up with anything on their own; they just pay attention to their surroundings and memory a little more than most.  Like professional sponges, they assimilate their surroundings and release them again in another form.  Wikipedia just told me that sponges emit waste; so I’ll need to think of a metaphor that feels better to my ego.   Although, maybe there is a little amoeba or protozoa that gets fat and happy on sponge waste somewhere in the big sea.   I’ll spew out all the literary waste I can if there literary protozoan that enjoy the buffet (another smiley face).

Hey readers few, anyone want to share a little sketch of one of their favorite real life characters?


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barney on January 13, 2010 at 9:58 am

    “I really don’t believe writers come up with anything on their own; they just pay attention to their surroundings and memory a little more than most.” —
    Very interesting point. Writers write best when they write from experience. Even if the genre is fantasy or horror, I believe the writer draws upon people, places, and things from his personal environment and then creatively embellishes. Sometimes fiction is too close to reality and the writer suffers the consequences (case in point: Truman Capote, whose acquaintances thought they recognized themselves in his work, much to their embarrassment).

    “Hey readers few, anyone want to share a little sketch of one of their favorite real life characters?”–
    Grandfather — He was watching me intently, his round eyes staring out from hollow sockets. The stroke had taken its toll by marking him plainly, unmistakably. The loose skin hung on his frail face covering a stubble of white beard. Someone would later shave him before neighbors stopped by. I was family. He could relax a bit with me and not seem to mind that the stroke had locked up his words and prevented him from telling me the things he had saved up to share — later when there was time. There was no more time. Soon he would stop fighting, surrender to a foe he failed to understand, failed even to recognize until it was too late — old age. He was a hardworking man, up before dawn to set the farm in motion. He would work until dark signaled he had worked long enough. Now he sat quietly, leaning back on a worn sofa watching his grandson perform like a Vaudevillian. I would make faces, prance and dance, recite one-liners, and do just about anything until . . . a grin would spring forth from captivity and land freely on his pale face. His eyes would shine for a moment and he would acknowledge that — yes, he still had a grin left to give. And he would give it to me. You see, I was his grandson. It was part of my inheritance.


    • I love it! Thank you so much for sharing your grandfather with us. Have you ever been able to use his memory to enrich another character you were writing? Does pieces of this dear man show up throughout your writing? As always, I appreciate your thoughtful responses 🙂


      • Posted by Barney on January 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

        “Have you ever been able to use his [your grandfather’s]memory to enrich another character you were writing?”
        Fascinating question — fascinating line of questions regarding the origin of characters in a work of fiction. Surprising to me, I was not able to immediately answer the question. I was forced to reflect on my various types of work — a novel, a bunch of stories, poems, and songs — to determine the extent to which I use real life characters, if at all. It seems, for the most part, my characters are a composite of traits from various people: a physical trait borrowed from one, an attitude or habit borrowed from another. My novel is the exception. There, I intentionally used a colleague, practically carbon copied him, because he was perfect for the role. I remember as I was writing about his idiosyncrasies, I watched him move about the workplace and simply described what I saw. It was easy writing, but I felt as though I was exposing him naked before the world — an act of heresy or sacrilege. I didn’t like the feeling, so I didn’t try it with any others. However, as we agree, subconsciously or otherwise, bits and pieces filter in. So, in answer, I may have used a trait or two of my grandfather, but I steer away from direct links. I would like to think I create characters — give them life, mold them from the bits and pieces of several to make one. Isn’t that an awesome thought: a writer creates characters, gives them life, and then exposes them to the readers’ critiques. Capote said publishing a work was like taking your child out in the backyard and shooting it! Now think about that as you continue your novel! : > )

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