Thursday, September 25, 2008

Real Life Characters

I believe the best characters in fiction aren't invented, so much as they are plucked from reality, cloned, tweaked slightly (if at all), and inserted into your story where they proceed along a new trajectory within your fictionalized environment, a path different from their real-life counterpart even though they share a common foundation, like twins separated at birth. In other words, if you ever feel you're writing flat characters, just start looking around you. Sometimes a human being is so colorful, so bizarre and perfect, that inserting them into your fiction while changing virtually nothing about them can almost feel like plagiarism--but it's totally legit!

Writing about the twin Asian evangelists last week has reminded me of another real-life character I've been meaning to tell you about: My grandfather. James Cooney, the First, passed away about ten years ago, and though I remember him fondly I do wish I had known him better --- perhaps that's a natural consequence of getting older, and growing more interested in your roots.

Grandpa was an Irish immigrant. From what I knew of him, he was a strong man, a simple man, a man who found comfort in his routines. He was a confident but quiet man --- my grandmother spoke enough for the both of them, most agree. Unassuming and reserved like he was, one had to look closely to see when he shined, and last month at my sister's wedding ceremony, my aunt (Grandpa's daughter) gave us one example that which, from a writer's perspective (not to mention a grandson's) is an absolute gem.

It turns out Grandpa's favorite television show was Murder, She Wrote. For those who don't know, the show starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a murder mystery writer and amateur detective, who always managed to get herself caught up in real-life murder investigations. The show invariably had law enforcement itching to arrest the red herring while Ms. Fletcher gathered up contrary evidence on her own. At the end of each show, she pieces together what she's found, and reveals the true identity of the killer.

Talk about a comfortable routine.

Grandpa watched the show religiously, and was so engrossed that he was even willing to shoosh his chatty counterpart if Grandma got rolling. But then, without fail, at 8:45 pm Grandpa would take off his shoes, and announce, "Time for bed," then walk upstairs minutes before the murderer was unveiled. And that was that.

The next day, Grandma would rant, "Don't you even want to know who the killer was?"

Nope. By then he didn't care.

Even now, as I write this, I can barely articulate the myriad questions such behavior raises. It's not just weird... it's like, Alice in Wonderland, Mad-Tea-Party weird. Can somebody be so married to his schedule that he resists such delicious anticipation??? How is it possible I share this man's genes when I myself have stayed up till 4 am on work nights, plowing through episode after episode of The Wire, or The West Wing, or 24?

It's charming, fascinating, marvelous, and you can bet I'll be looking for the next story I can squeeze Grandpa into.


Amanda said...

And there speaks a man who has never watched a full episode of Murder She Wrote. The reason your dear Grandad was away to his bed was most likely because he knew whodunnit already. Canny those Irish you know!!

Note to self: be very careful not to do anything of note around literary friends

Jim C. said...

Don't worry Amanda. You'll be dead ten years before I write anything.