Thursday, March 06, 2014

Characters and Perspective

Years ago I was involved in a brief and stupid relationship with a guy who taught me a lot about perspective. Even though I was quite happy to get out of that relationship, I still think about him sometimes when I am developing new characters. From the outside he had a lot going for him—he was 6'4” and barrel-chested with dark hair and a beard that was awfully good looking. Bob (not his real name) graduated from a good college with degrees in both Petroleum Engineering and Structural Engineering and he had a very good job working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He was a Vietnam vet who had managed to avoid most of the horror shows most soldiers faced by working a desk job in a supply station. Bob also had a massive chip on his shoulder.

Right from the beginning of our relationship he often spoke about his family in derisive terms. Bob described his mother, father, and one sister as being uneducated, rural folks who were lacking in social graces and intellectual interests. When I met them—he took me to Sunday dinner in the home he grew up in—I liked them. Their house was a pleasant, tidy ranch house in a Gulf Coast town in the sort of suburb that sprang up in the fifties. His father was a big, handsome, quiet guy who worked in oilfields by day and stopped by the local tavern on his way home from work maybe a little more often than he should. His mother was hilarious—a tall woman with a rather sassy manner who was also a vet having served as a WAC in World War 2. Bob's sister was quiet but pleasant and her husband, a local sheriff's deputy, was straight out of central casting. I liked them a lot—probably more than Bob did.

One of the things I noticed was how often Bob spoke about how poor his family was when he was a kid, how they had next to nothing, and how hard life was. One day, when he was complaining about his humble beginnings, I asked why they were so poor. I pointed out that his father was an oilfield roughneck and my father was a carpenter. His mother was a hair dresser and my mother was a full-time mom. He grew up in a family of four, I grew up in a family of ten. So why were they so much poorer than us? He was furious.

We broke up not long after that but a few months later I ran into his sister in a department store and she expressed regret that our relationship had ended because his family liked me. I said that I was sorry, too, but that Bob still had so much baggage from his childhood—how rough he'd had it—that he wasn't ready for a relationship. She stared at me and then said, “He told you that? That he had a rough childhood? What the hell was he talking about?”

I left Texas shortly after that and he called me from time to time until I finally got an unlisted number. I was glad to be out of the relationship but I spent a lot of time thinking about what could have happened to make him so negative about his own life. I don't know what became of him but bits and pieces of him show up in my characters. I thought about this yesterday when I discovered the quote by Richard Armitage at left. Armitage was talking about the character of Guy of Gisborne that he plays in a Robin Hood production. He's a wonderful actor anyway and is superb as Gisborne but his comments about the allure of a damaged inner core reminded me of Bob.

I doubt I'll ever know what caused Bob to be like he was but there is a mystery to people like that which, though it is off-putting in real life, is endlessly fascinating in literature.

Today is World Book Day so spend some time reading. Buy a book. Find a character that fascinates you. And maybe think about your own perspective.

Thanks for reading.

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