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Characters With Character
A few years ago at a local college, I did a reading in which I presented the first half or so of “Juanita and The Frog Prince,” which was then a story-in-progress. During the Q&A session that followed, I remarked that I write what I like to call “redemptive fiction,” wherein I lead my characters to the brink of beyond-the-pale unacceptability, trusting that I will find something in them - or better yet, that they will find something in themselves - that draws them back from the abyss.
“Good grief!” one of my questioners exploded. “How the hell are you going to redeem this two-nosed guy! He's a monster !”
I could only admit that I had no idea. “Freaks” I reminded him, citing Harry Crews, “‘are people with special considerations under God.' So I'm putting my faith in a Higher Power.”
In A Congress of Wonders , the heroes are those characters who somehow find grace or strength in their own suffering (never mind that it's usually comic suffering) and thereby rise above the reader's expectations for them: In “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” Juanita Sparks puts her fate in the hands of a most unpromising protector (the putative “monster” himself, as a matter of fact) and is richly rewarded for her faith; in the other two stories, Wanda Pearl Ratliff and Finch Fronk (respectively) transcend their barren, joyless lives when Wanda Pearl reveals her capacity for maternal love and Finch triumphantly discovers that celibacy has not excluded him from fatherhood.
In The Natural Man there's a character named Nadine “Oodles” Ockerman, an immensely overweight, immeasurably foolish Venus of Willendorf (read “Needmore”) who ensconces herself on her front porch and attempts to entice the scornful, derisive high school boys playing basketball in the vacant lot next door.
“After a while,” I wrote at the conclusion of the passage, “miffed at unceremonious rejections and outbursts of raucous guffaws and vulgarities from the athletes, she'd flounce back in the house and slam the screen door.”
But when I looked back at what I had just written, I wasn't very happy with it; the whole passage seemed mean-spirited, unfeeling, misogynous. My first impulse was to rewrite the entire business, and try to soften it somehow; but then I thought, No, let's see if I can turn the tables on the bastids. So I added this line: “Lately, perhaps in the depths of a despair that none of her rude court was man enough to fathom, she'd abandoned her post altogether, and mostly stayed inside when a game was going on.”
Voila! Instant redemption!
Character is fluid , not static or rigid; like water, it seeks its own level. Writers make a terrible mistake when they pre-conceive their characters in such a way as to constrict the possibility of change, of growth - or, for that matter, of diminution. “A door is always open,” said Flannery O' Connor, “to possibility and the unexpected in the human soul.” In my own work, the characters I like best are the ones who rise above my expectations for them. A character who can't surprise the writer can't surprise the reader either. Or, to put it another way, characters need to get out of character once in a while, just like regular folks; it keeps the old juices flowing.
In the early 1970s, around the middle of the twenty years I spent wrestling with the fictional characters in The Natural Man, I wrote, for Playboy magazine, a long, self-referential profile of an old friend of mine, Lexington , Kentucky 's legendary Little Enis, “The World's Greatest Left - Handed Upsidedown Guitar Player” - who was also the world's first and, to my mind, foremost Elvis impersonator. (Enis's real name was Carlos Toadvine, or “Carlus,” as his family called him. He took his stage name from the old joke about Elvis the Pelvis and his little brother Enis . . . .)
Little Enis - as of 1976, unhappily, the late Little Enis - was notoriously, gloriously raunchy; hanging around with Enis, I used to say, was like keeping company with your own Id. (“That little son-of-a-buck will get laid where most men couldn't get a drink of water,” a bartender once confided to me back in the '50s, when I first began following Enis around the local clubs. “I heard a couple of these old girls say he's awful heavy-hung. They was talking about somebody named Old Blue, and it turned out they was referring to Enis's pecker!”) He was one rude, crude, lewd little dude, no question about it. Yet I adored him, and I was determined to write about him affectionately, lovingly - and, as best I could, to induce my reader to care for him as much as I did.
A tall order. How was I to render this profoundly unseemly figure in a light that would make him as appealing on paper as he was in person?
It happened that I was just then grappling with a similar problem in the dog-eared manuscript that was languishing in my desk drawer, that old story of mine that was still yearning to become The Natural Man. Monk McHorning, a high school basketball star who is one of the two principals in the story, had for years stubbornly resisted my best efforts to make him three-dimensional; at six-feet-five and 235 pounds, he had God's own plenty of height and breadth, but depth-wise he was the merest shadow of himself. I had conceived him - that is, I had pre -conceived him - as a bully and a brute, and bully and brute he defiantly remained. I was Aunt Polly to his Huck Finn, and Monk, God bless him, would not be sivilized.
Then came Little Enis. “I yam what I yam,” said Popeye the Sailor, and that was Enis; he was, emphatically and resolutely, what he was. He would say anything , absolutely anything (I once went with him to visit his old parents at their sweet little Toadvine homeplace, a small farm in Hogue Holler , Kentucky . “Now Carlus,” said his mama, “the preacher's comin' to Sunday dinner this week. You ort to come and meet him.” “You know, mommy,” Enis said reflectively, “ I shoulda been a preacher. I like fried chicken and pussy as much as anybody.”) and the stories of his Bacchanalian appetites and marathon priapic exploits would curl a satyr's mustachioes. Racist and sexist epithets were as natural to his conversation as aroma is to a billygoat. To have sanitized his speech - or his life - would have been, almost literally, to steal his soul. There was nothing for it, then, but to turn the old boy loose and hope for the best.
Enis - my apologies in advance for this unpardonable but inevitable pun - rose to the occasion. My Playboycontribution about him won the magazine's Best Non-Fiction award for 1974, and changed the course of both my career and, all too briefly, Enis's. He died at 43, of too much living.
Meanwhile, I was finding that whenever I bestirred my old fiction manuscript in yet another of my sporadic efforts to revive it, my late friend Little Enis was exerting more and more influence over my portrayal of Monk McHorning. The way to do Monk justice, I was gradually discovering, was simply to let him be himself , to leave off judging him - through the medium of Harry Eastep, my spokesman in the novel - and begin instead to appreciate him for what he really was - a natural man.
The Monk McHorning who emerged at last inherits many personal characteristics from Little Enis. Indeed, if Enis had been six-feet-five instead of five-feet-six, and had played basketball instead of left-handed upsidedown guitar, he'd have been, as a boy, just like Monk.
There was even a role in the novel for Old Blue. He plays the Big Inch, and does the part with great panache.
Author's Note: Portions of this little essay are adapted from “Empathy Follows Sympathy,” another short essay that appeared in The Writer magazine (February 1984)
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