Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

4 thoughts on “Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

  1. I’m sure you’re aware how patiently we await that novel.

    Unexpectedness amplifies effects. Kindness from strangers, curtness from loved ones, a devils food doughnut when you thought it was a pumpernickel bagel (or, for some, vice versa.)

  2. Yes on the unexpected amplification, my fictionally forensic friend. And though it happens every time, it still seems a surprise when characters take a turn unknown, the uncontrollable little beasts. Sometimes it can be scary too, but in the case of Massimo, good fun. Stay pumpernickel, T.

  3. Tom, very glad you mentioned Massimo.

    The first fascinating thing is, that I, too, find that Massimo consistently cheers me up about the human race—especially at times when our species seems to be just a bloody awful scourge on itself and on the rest of the planet. Yes, when confronted with intolerance and mass shootings and wars and so on, I devolve into quite the misanthrope. And it’s dear Old Massimo who so often shakes me out of my dark thoughts.

    The second fascinating thing about Massimo is this:

    If we had planned him fully, he never would have grown into the magnificent being who is capable of such good cheer.

    It’s a huge insight for us writers that we had to let him ROAM.

  4. Rick, indeed we need more Massimos. And they could always help with reaching the items highest on the shelf and at the top of cabinets, as well as offering cheer to the world.

    You’re keenly right on the issue of letting him roam and develop within the work—that was a revelation, and such good fun too!

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