In my blog over the past year I’ve discussed how the inspiration for a character or a character type is often drawn from real life. Here is another instance. At work, for the past few days I’ve been cleaning out filing cabinets, tearing through thousands of paper files, condemning the vast majority to the trash bins bound for the shredder and recycle. This task of wanton destruction was pretty much straight forward, that is until I discovered something I didn’t expect. Hidden amid reams of technical documents, contracts, and vendor catalogs was a birth certificate and a green presentation binder emblazoned with the seal of the “United States of America War Office”.
Those documents aren’t something you’d typically find in files for a technical program, so I brought them to the attention of my program manager. After I told him who the birth certificate belonged to, he responded by telling me that I needn’t be concerned about the documents because, “He doesn’t need them. He’s dead.” Those are the cold facts. But is that all there is to the story?
If you are familiar with the song “Sam Stone” by John Prine (here), then you’re already ahead of me. And purposes of our discussion go ahead and say the name on the birth certificate was ‘Sam’.
Sam, according to the birth certificate, was born in Avon Park, Florida on October 2, 1958. His father was foreman in a citrus grove. Sam attended West Point from which he graduated on February 9, 1978. The green presentation binder contained his honorable discharge from the US Army. Graduates of West Point are discharged from the Army Corps of Cadets, then sworn into the regular Army as second lieutenants.
After making a few inquiries I learned that this Sam, who worked for a defense contractor for many years, was a troubled soul. He was an alcoholic and divorced. I Googled him and discovered a few more bits of information. He was only 48 when he died. He was survived by his parents and a brother.
That’s all very nice, but what does this have to do with writing and character development?
Everything, because from these few bits of information a vision of the man develops.
It had been a rough day, but he had seen himself through a lifetime of rough days. He was at the end of this day and, he judged, at the end of all his days. Finality. The word came to him unbidden and he embraced it as if the thought were his own. It was fitting he thought, because this was the end. The lights were off, the power company had seen to that. The doors were locked, the house sealed, thanks to the sheriff. He didn’t have to worry about a job or a wife, because he had lost both. Yet, he was still here. The screen door had a broken lock and they had not yet taken the small table and chair that sat squarely in the center of the patio. So he had decided that this was as good a place as any to think his final thoughts.
Finality. Sam poured the last of the bottle into the tall plastic cup and took a deep draught. With the bourbon, memories flowed into his mind. His childhood among the groves of citrus in Avon Park. His years at West Point. His years in the Army. At that point his recollections stopped and his mind transformed into darkness and pain. He entered the Army in 1978. Vietnam was history. In 1980 he married his high school sweetheart, Coraline. There should have been nothing to stand in the way of his career, but three years later he was wounded during Operation Sudden Fury, the American invasion of Grenada. The shrapnel in his hip and back earned him a discharge and disability. Combat and morphine changed him. He was angry, but fought against the morphine, replacing it with alcohol. He landed a well paying job with a defense contractor― hiring disabled veterans is good for business ― but the stress at work combined with the pain from his wounds exacerbated the strain on his marriage. He spent more time in his office or in a bar instead of at home. Finally everything in his life seemed to run into one dark, endlessly painful stream. His wife left him in order to save herself. His coworkers filed complaint after complaint about his behavior until management finally had to act, in the end termination was the only option.
With little income and no hope for the future he walked away from his life with little more than the clothes he was wearing and an addiction he couldn’t afford. Finality. Now he sat on a chair on the back porch of a house he once owned, trying to make sense of a life that had slipped through his fingers like smoke from a candle. He took another deep draught of the amber liquid and felt nothing. He was beyond feeling anything. He was beyond it all. He didn’t even taste the metal of the pistol’s barrel or smell the gun oil. Now he was completely and utterly empty. Finality.
What you’ve just read is my vision of the man. No doubt you could take the same information I had and come up with a completely different scenario. For instance, the reasons for his divorce and alcoholism might be entirely different. The allegation of alcoholism might not even be true, just a rumor. How would that have affected him? These few facts could take you in so many different directions.
Do you see the possibilities? If you do, then run with it. I told Sam’s story in three paragraphs (495 words), is there enough there to turn it into a novel? I wouldn’t doubt it. There’s everything you need― conflict, war, love, emotion ―maybe even God, or the lack of Him. Did Sam have faith or was that something else he lost when he lost himself.
Let me know if this helps get you started.
If you would like to share your ideas about what I’ve written, feel free to contact me either on the blog or using other social media. Thanks.