08 December 2022

Is It Life, Or Is It A Character Arc?

Lately (which, in my case means pretty much "all the time") I have been giving a fair amount of thought on the notion of character. I've written in this space before about the importance of strong character development as a component of any piece of well-done fiction. But two things have recently conspired to set me pondering the notion of character more deeply than ever before.

I'm talking about the novel Magpie Murders by prolific author/screenwriter Anthony Horowitz (who also recently adapted his novel for production as a BBC TV series), and of Pearl Harbor Day (yesterday: December 7th–the anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

How are these two items connected?

I'm so glad you asked.

We'll start with the fiction and go backward.

Without giving too much away, the central theme of Horowitz's work deals with the time-honored authorial trick of mining the lives of real people for material for a work of fiction. And in this instance, of the potential consequences of same.

"So what?" I hear you saying, "Don't writers do this sort of thing all the time?"

And the answer is, "of course." And it doesn't limit itself to actual fiction. One famous case of someone taking from their real life and heavily fictionalizing aspects of an otherwise "factual" memoir was the hatchet job that novelist Ernest Hemingway did on his erstwhile friend and expatriate colleague, Great Gatsby author and Jazz Age icon F. Scott Fitzgerald in his memoir of living and working in 1920s Paris: A Moveable Feast. Hemingway's reminiscences of Fitzgerald contain enough truth to seem familiar, while also tarring the admittedly high-living Fitzgerald as an eccentric hypochondriac.

Were Fitzgerald not already twenty years dead when Hemingway published A Moveable Feast, he may well not have recognized himself in Hemingway's hit piece. Truly a well-written and subtly vicious "portrait of the artist." A close reading of the piece reveals numerous hints as to Hemingway's rumored inferiority complex, and there is a fair amount of score settling in the memoir's pages. The blackest mark against the monumentally talented Hemingway's character is that by all reports Fitzgerald considered Hemingway a friend, and no doubt would have been deeply hurt by the book.

Leaving off the discussion of real life influencing character for a moment, let's take a stab at tying in Pearl Harbor Day.

I'm fifty-seven, born two years after the Kennedy assassination, and thirty-six on September 11th, 2001.These two events, the "do you remember where you were when you heard about..." moments in the lives of my generation and that of my parents, bear a similarity as a temporal and cultural touchstone to the same moment in the lives of my grandparents' generation: December 7th, 1941, "A date that will live in infamy."

So how to use Pearl Harbor Day the event as a tie-in to character development? There's the obvious notion of writing about the events of that day, as James Jones did with his novel From Here to Eternity. I'd like to explore the notion of using this event a bit more tangentially though.

Imagine Pearl Harbor Day itself, the anniversary, not the day of the actual sneak attack, playing an outsized role in a character's life. How so? It's already of the anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in American history.

The question we have to ask is: How could the anniversary, and not so much the main event, impact a character's life? Now stay with me here...

Make it the character's birthday.

And make the character the son of a Japanese mother and an American father. And ratchet up the symbolism/potential impact on the character by making his mother a married Japanese diplomat who got pregnant with him while conducting an affair with his American naval officer father.

To raise the stakes even further, make the character an adoptee who survives a bout of cancer that robs him of the sight in one of his eyes while still less than a year old. Taken on by loving parents, American teachers working in Japan.

Now we  begin to try to flesh out the character more. He grows up to be short (5'1") but powerfully built. A music-loving multi-instrumentalist, a voracious reader, who could work his way through a whole library shelf in a week.

Make him a study in contrasts: a homebody handy with just about any kind of tools, able to fix (or jerry-rig) nearly anything. Occasionally a wild man out at the bars–someone best described as a "gregarious loner"–a fascinating conversationalist tolerant of nearly everyone he ever met, able to get along with anyone, but truly close only to a very select circle of friends. And a guy who relished (mis)quoting W.C. Fields ("Any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad."–something actually said about Fields, not by him.), but was a colossal fraud on that front: no one loved (and was loved by) him more than small children and dogs. ALL of them.

And because of his wild streak, make this character the most deliberate of men: understanding on some primal level that his flights of reckless abandon will get him into trouble if he's not careful. Make sure to have him carry the memories and scars of this duality: a drunken fall from a friend's roof following a Halloween party–the time he was the passenger in a friend's car and the friend (after a few too many) veered off the road and hit a house. More scars.

And you keep layering it on from there. So much so that of course, when this character eventually goes to meet his Maker, it's as a the result of a tragic accident.

Okay, you got me. This "character" is, of course, real. And here's the tie-in: it's my friend, Jeff. And he really was born on December 7th, the child of a Japanese diplomat mother and an American naval officer father. And like the author character in Magpie Murders, I have culled the above details from my friend's life.

I've done this in part because I'm writing this post on Wednesday, December 7th for publication on Thursday, December 8th. And today is my friend Jeff's sixtieth birthday. And as usual, on this, Pearl Harbor Day, I'm not thinking of World War II, or Hawaii. I'm thinking, as I do often every year, and especially on his birthday, of my friend Jeff, a true man among men. They didn't come any funnier, any quirkier, or any more interesting.

And although it's been over twenty years since his tragic accident, lord, do I miss him. And there isn't a week or a month that goes by when I don't wish he were still around, and that he could have met my wife, and played with my son, and spoiled the hell out of my already willful dog.

So in honor of my friend Jeff, I'd like to ask you, dear reader, during this holiday season, to take a moment and tell those you love and who love you how much they mean to you. And if you can't find the words to tell them, better yet, show them.

A simple (if not always easy) test of character.

See you in two weeks.


  1. Perhaps this says more about me than the book Magpie Murders, but I found the book both confusing and often boring. It was more work than pleasure. I enjoyed the teleplay. I read the second book recently, and enjoyed it. The murderer was obvious in both parts of the story, the murder of the author and the murder in the story, but both were obvious in the teleplay. I like to have the murderer not signaled like a neon arrow a half-dozen times.
    I like how you wove all the parts together in your blog. I enjoyed it.

  2. What a great blog - and a great tribute to your friend Jeff!

  3. Terrific post and recognition of Jeff who will live on in your story!!!

  4. That was unexpectedly touching, Brian. I did not see that wrapup coming.
    Kids who love growly Fields and dinosaurs and pseudo-crabby teachers are fun. I very much admire the foul-mouthed potentially violent Roy Kent in Ted Lasso. In one scene, he's snarling and cursing out his team. The camera swings around, and we see his team is a clutch of adoring, giggling girls. Better than Hemingway, I'd argue.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>