It’s the classic question for any writer: Where do your characters come from? Like the other popular question—So what’s your book about?—the answer is never simple. Except when it is.
Here’s a remarkable story about where one writer found his character in a seemingly easy way…though, of course, nothing about writing is ever as easy as it seems, right?
I’ve known W.T. Pfefferle for about a thousand years (that’s what people say when they don’t want to give clues about how old they are): we met in graduate school at American University. Together we endured each other’s slavish Raymond Carver imitations in fiction workshops, wolfed cheese cubes and pate at visiting writer readings, and together, with much angst and many arguments, started Folio, the wonderful literary journal that is still published at AU. (Who knew such a fine journal once had staples down its spine?)
He’s an unforgettable guy and a marvelous writer. His new book, The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, is a collection of narrative poems in which we meet Pop Thorndale, a slightly more motivated Prufrock of our time, “writing it all down” to create:
A staggering memoir.
Heavy enough to conk a cockroach,
but light enough to carry with a beach chair
and the last four bottles of Amstel Light.
For more than twenty years I’ve been a writer. I’ve published a variety of books: a textbook, a guide to internet resources, and a sort of travel memoir about a year I spent traveling the country in a motorhome to interview and photograph other writers.
My own creative work has been in poetry and short stories. Many years ago, I wrote a couple of thin novels that I was never able to sell, but my poetry has appeared widely in literary magazines all around the country.
Because of my fiction background, my poetry could best be described as narrative. I’ve always known – and had been taught – that characters are at the heart of good storytelling. We crave “good” characters to read about or watch on the screen. We want them to be real, at least as real as a made up person can be, and we want to identify with them, feel for them, wish for them. A good character can make a lot of bad medicine – or writing – go down smoothly, and it’s rare that any literature can be very good without at least one extraordinary and rich character.
Three years ago, I was in my car at an intersection when a “character” drove by, a man in his early 50s in a red convertible. All I could see was his bald head and his heavy trunk, one hand on the steering wheel, and one arm resting casually across the back of the front seat. His head was tilted back as if he was drinking in the pleasure of that day. He didn’t look crazy; I don’t mean that. As his car floated through the intersection in front of me I thought, “That guy is really living. That guy knows who he is.”
His name came to me right away, Pop. I thought of him as Pop. I even had a line, “Pop goes the mighty freaking weasel,” when I first saw him. I don’t know where it came from, but I imagined him to be – in the old parlance – a wiseacre. I imagined him a wife and a son. I saw him standing behind the counter of some shop or store. I pictured him at day’s end tallying up what he’d accomplished. I knew right away that I’d write about him.
Never in 20 years of writing had a character presented himself in this way to me. I’d dreamed up people, created countless faux copies of myself, and I’d even lifted characters off of TV shows for my own purposes. (One only needs to change a physical characteristic or an occupation when stealing TV people for a short story or a poem. Think of Jerry Seinfeld no longer as a comedian, but an ice skater. He’s funny like Jerry, has friends like George and Elaine, but now he is a low-rent ice capades guy looking for happiness and love.)
So, although it had not happened before, Pop came into my life and I began to write about him.
Pop came to life for me in prose first. I had a chapter of his “complaints,” just a list of things he was mad about. I imagined myself in the passenger seat of that convertible listening in as he talked. At first, I worried that Pop was just another version of me – I am close to 50, bald, heavy, etc. But Pop’s voice – which I could hear in my head – was different. His concerns weren’t the same as mine. He was crankier than me, for example, and more importantly, less afraid to be cranky. I finished a chapter and moved to another, one about his wife, Judith. I did a chapter about Grease, his son. I wrote about his job. These little chapters (2-4 pages) were full of information. I felt as though I were making a movie and I was writing background notes for the actors who’d play Pop, Judith, Grease, and the rest of the folks in Pop’s world.
When I had the foundation of his story, of his life, I had some other projects that needed tending, and Pop and his world stayed on my hard drive unwatched.
Almost a year passed and I opened a file called “PopThorndale.doc.” I didn’t even remember giving him a last name, but there it was. It felt wordy to me, and I began excising lines wholesale. A whole paragraph of material became this opening line: “I am mad about 5 things today." The way I was deleting text gave the page a ragged right hand margin, and suddenly the thing became poetry. I took out any authorial narrative and just let Pop speak his poems directly to the reader, dramatic monologue-style, each poem bringing the reader bits of Pop’s past.
As time went on, Pop’s world became more complex. With the foundation in place, I was able to plumb Pop’s past, problems with his son, his wife’s indiscretion, Pop’s longing to be more than he had been. I ended up writing about one year in Pop’s life – as it turns out, his last. Seventy-five poems and a year later, I had told Pop’s story in his own voice. It was a novel in poems, perhaps a memoir in poems. I began entering the book in poetry contests – about the only way to secure publication of poetry anymore – and after being a finalist a half dozen times over a two year period, won a contest and shepherded the book to publication. It’s called The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, a title – I hope – that Pop himself would love.
When I read from it at a national convention of poets, more than two years removed from its writing, I felt Pop’s voice in my own, recalled again the first image I had of him in that convertible, and I marveled at the richness and complexity of Pop as he had been created on the pages I held. I read poems about his troubled childhood, his courtship of Judith, the birth of his son, his wife’s affair, and his life-long malaise. I knew him, and felt his story was something worth telling.
I’ve been writing fiction and poetry for more than 20 years, and it alarms me to realize that never had I been blessed with a character so real, so alive. For me, characters had always been names and descriptions, a cute phrase, an intriguing – but one-dimensional – background that led to some action that led to some kind of climax, and then a sad dénouement. This was always followed – as it often is for writers – by a vain and sad attempt to get someone (anyone) to publish the thing.
In this case, Pop came about organically. I didn’t force him into being. I wasn’t looking for Pop. Pop found me. And his story got told only after I knew who he was, what he wanted, what he was missing. The day he drove across that intersection was a day when I wasn’t looking for a story. It was not a day when I was trying to wrestle with my very mediocre and unimportant career as a writer. (Despite many years of trying, I’m absolutely nobody in the world of literature. I’m a pretty good teacher of writing and a damn fine golfer, but I’m only a half-able temp in the corporation called LiteratureAmerica.)
So, when Pop drove through that intersection, and when I let his image and his story grow in my brain without pressure, without panic, he became real. I have writer friends who dutifully note the details of mundane life, caching ideas, lines of dialogue, and artifacts for future writings. One pal can’t stop himself from asking new acquaintances a variety of questions designed to mine new material: “What was on the walls of your bedroom when you were a kid?’ or “What was the weirdest job you ever had?” and “If someone were to punch you, would you ‘do’ something first, or ‘say’ something?”
And I suppose in my own writing I’ve done similar things, forcing characters into being, rolling them down a mountain of conflict, urging them, coaxing them into a sort of fake real world that makes up a short story or a poem. And my feeling is that it was always a mistake. Forcing characters to life is not a path to anything real. I can blow up 20 rubber dolls and arrange them around my living room, but that doesn’t make it a party. And my characters in the past were about that real, shiny on the outside, empty inside.
Better yet to keep one’s eyes open, at the intersection or elsewhere. ~~ W.T. Pfefferle
About: W.T. Pfefferle’s most recent book is The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, available through Amazon.com. He came to the U.S. from Canada in the late 1970s, did several years of college work, and then settled in Texas for more than a decade where he taught writing by day and played in bad bar bands at night. He published two books with Prentice Hall in the late 1990s, and then moved into writing program administration. He took a sabbatical from teaching in 2004 to research and write his third book, Poets on Place: Tales and Interviews from the Road (Utah State University Press), a travel memoir. His own poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including Antioch Review, Virginia Quarterly, Nimrod, Greensboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. He has been married since 1984, and favors Finlandia vodka, Fender Telecasters, and Nike forged blades.