Suzanne Rorhus got her start as a writer in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in May 2013. Since then, her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Memphis Noir. Her next EQMM story, “Cletus Vanderbilt and the Theft of Lord Ashbury,” scheduled for March/April 2016, is very different in style and mood from her earlier piece for us; it’s a humorous tale, set in her native South. Suzanne is an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. In this post she deals inventively with several topics of interest to writers—and to readers as well.—Janet Hutchings
Charles Dickens, Aristotle, and Elmore Leonard walked into a bar. Charles removed his top hat and ran a hand through his white hair. “What weather!” he said. “I could use a drink.”
Rollo, the joint’s bartender for the last thirty years, hailed them. “Well, look who the wind swept in! You three look like the setup to a lousy joke.”
“Go polish some glasses, Rollo,” Charles said. “Are you going to serve us or not?”
“Sure, sure, just sit anywhere. No need to get snippy.” Rollo turned his back on the group and focused his attention on the football game displayed on the small television mounted over the bar.
“That Rollo. He’s such a character,” Aristotle said, seating himself at a small, battered wooden table in the corner.
“He never changes,” Elmore said. “Such a card.” After sitting, he reached for a cocktail napkin from the dispenser on the table and used it to wrap up the wad of gum he’d been chewing.
“Is that your definition of a character?” Charles said. He removed his pocket handkerchief and rubbed a spot on his chair. “That he be unique and never change?”
“Well, that’s a useful definition for a stock character like a bartender,” Elmore said. “He needs to be drawn in a few quick strokes. He needs to be real enough, even though he isn’t worth more than a line or two to the story.”
“Who are you calling worthless?” Rollo said. He approached the table bearing a tray laden with their usual drinks; beer for Elmore, ale for Charles, and wine for Aristotle. He passed out the drinks, sloshing each one.
“No one says you’re worthless,” Elmore said. He wiped up the spilled beer with a handful of napkins and tossed the sodden mess onto the center of the table.
“Though in fact you are,” Dickens amended.
“But your part in the story’s drama is so minor as to be nonexistent,” Elmore said. “A flat character like a bartender, unless the story is about a bartender, is more comparable to a piece of furniture than a person. Similar to a hat rack, he is worth describing but not worth dwelling on.”
Rollo wiped a tear with the back of a massive paw. “That’s kind of harsh, don’t you think? Calling me a hat rack? I have a mother, you know. I have friends. I won third prize in the science fair in fifth grade. I’m a person, not a hat rack.” He sniffled then snorted up the phlegm that threatened to leak from his nose.
“I’m sure you are an interesting person once we get to know you,” Charles said. “And maybe, just maybe, you could be the protagonist of your own story someday. But in our story, you’re just background noise. The purpose in sketching you lightly is to give the impression of “person-ness” without wasting a great deal of space. Like the tip of an iceberg, see?”
“So I’m a waste of space and a huge hunk of ice? In addition to being a hat rack? I hope you gentlemen weren’t planning on ordering a second drink. Your custom isn’t welcome here.” Rollo stalked off, leaving the three men staring at his back.
“Well, you’ve done it now, Charles. You’re a regular Scrooge. Why’d you have to go and hurt his feelings?” Elmore took a long pull on his drink.
“You’ll need to apologize,” Aristotle said. “I wanted to order appetizers.”
After further urging, the two men persuaded Charles to follow Rollo to apologize and to place their order for hot wings, a soft pretzel with honey mustard, and mozzarella-cheese sticks.
Once Charles was out of earshot, Aristotle turned to Elmore. “Is it me or is Charles becoming crankier with age?”
“Not just you. His character arc is diving right into the toilet.”
“I guess that makes him the protagonist,” Aristotle said. “If you are saying that he is the one who most changes during this narrative.”
“Hogwash,” Elmore said. He scooped up a handful of peanuts and shoved them into his mouth. “I’m the hero of my own story.”
Aristotle selected a nut. “We are all the center of our own universes, are we not? Even Rollo believes that the stars and planets revolve around himself.”
Charles lowered his considerable bulk onto his chair. “Happy now? He hugged me, can you believe that?”
“Did you catch The Big Bang Theory?” Elmore asked, eager to change the subject. “I’ve been watching reruns. Last night I watched the episode where Sheldon Cooper waxes poetic about the value of science.”
“Ooh, I missed that one,” Aristotle said.
“It’s a classic. Sheldon said science ‘tears off the mask of nature and stares at the face of God.’”
They paused their conversation while Rollo tossed the baskets of food onto the table. A chicken wing flew out and bounced off Aristotle’s knee, leaving a smear of wing sauce on his toga.
“Isn’t Sheldon an atheist?” Charles asked. He pulled a hunk of pretzel from the napkin-lined basket and dunked it in the mustard before shoving it into his mouth.
“I like the statement” Aristotle said, “but as much as Sheldon hates the humanities, I could argue that it applies to literature as well. Science looks at the face of God as it smiles on the physical world, but literature shows the face of God as reflected within the heart of man.”
“But as an atheist, Sheldon would deny that man is created in God’s image,” Charles said. He waved a second piece of soft pretzel, showering himself and his companions with drops of mustard.
“Which begs the question,” Aristotle said, rubbing his face with a napkin, “do writers create characters using a mirror or a lamp? Is a created character a secondhand reflection of reality or a revealed aspect of reality?” Aristotle chose a mozzarella stick and carefully dipped its tip into the marinara sauce.
“That’s pretty deep, Aristotle,” Charles said. “The mirror or the lamp? I’m going to need another ale.” He waved at Rollo, who studiously ignored him.
“I go for the reflected reality method myself,” Elmore said. “My characters represent real people I’ve met. Each character is an amalgamation of several different people who exist in the real world. I watch people carefully and observe how they react to various situations. My characters are real because they reflect real people.”
I’m not sure I agree, my dear boy,” Charles said. “My characters aren’t based on real people. They resonate with readers because they ARE real people, illuminated on the pages by me, granted, but existing in their own right. Take Miss Havisham, for instance. Do you really know anyone who has sat for years in her wedding dress because she was jilted at the altar? Come on, think about it. Day and night, for years? Does she put that filthy thing back on after she bathes? Does she sleep in it? Miss Havisham is unique, as are we all. She isn’t an amalgamation of anything. She is a person, flawed in her own way but given life by her creator. Me.”
“So you’re God, in other words?” Elmore asked. “I never visualized God as having mustard stains on his suit jacket.”
Charles brushed at the stain in question. “Writers are like gods, no heresy intended. We create people, worlds, entire universes from nothing. Writers not only write about what is, but also about what could be.”
“True,” Elmore conceded. “And like God, we are responsible for the internal logic of our universes. Characters must have internal logic as well. You said so yourself, Aristotle.”
“That characters must be consistently inconsistent? Yes, I believe that, whether the characters come from the mirror or the lamp. They need to be ‘true’ to themselves.” Aristotle waved a thin finger in Rollo’s direction.
“Yes, sir?” Rollo asked.
“Another round, please,” Aristotle said. He sipped the last of his wine.
“Coming right up, sir.”
“The aim of art, though, is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.” Aristotle gestured, trying to demonstrate. “What matters is how things should be or could be, not how they are.”
“Wasn’t that Plato’s big beef with literature?” Elmore asked. “He said it was a poor imitation of reality, which is itself an imitation of how things really are, which is something only the gods can know.”
“Plato, dear Plato,” Aristotle said, shaking his head. “With all due respect for my teacher, he got some things wrong. Literature helps us understand real life by imitating it. Just as the child learns to be an adult by imitating adults, so do we learn about human nature by studying imitations of other humans. Characters, in other words.”
“Remind me to tell Plato you said that the next time I see him,” Charles said, drinking a healthy swallow from his second beer. “He’ll write you up in one of his dialogues and beat you to death with it.”
“Exactly my point. His dialogues were themselves an imitation of reality. Where does he get off knocking literature?”
Elmore stroked his chin thoughtfully. Finding a spot of mustard there, he licked his finger. “Plato taught history and stuff. Doesn’t history teach us about human nature? Some of my favorite crime stories have that ‘ripped from the headlines’ quality to them.”
“History is merely a mirror, reflecting what has occurred. Fiction, on the other hand, sheds light on the significance of what has occurred. It is only through fictional characters that we can spend time in another person’s mind. How bleak and desolate a world it would be if we were confined only to our own heads!” Aristotle tapped his brow. “Literature allows us access to the mind of the writer and the minds of his characters. Art can take the events described in history, filter them through the writer’s consciousness, then display them through characters to give them deeper meaning. The reader sees the ‘why’ and the ‘to whom,’ not just the ‘what happened.’”
“You can’t just flop a character down on the page,” Elmore said. “One of my writing rules is to avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Or of places and things, actually. You’ve got to leave out all the parts that sound like fancy writing, because readers tend to skip them anyway.”
“You need some description,” Charles said. “Otherwise you have people just talking inside a black box.” He snaked a hand inside his vest and scratched an armpit. “Anyway, a good description should tell you something about the character.”
“Meaning only ugly people can be criminals?” Elmore said. “That’s stupid. Plenty of attractive crooks in prison.”
“Take Tiny Tim,” Charles said. “He is, well, tiny, and he’s disabled to boot. Those aspects of his description represent his vulnerability. Scrooge wouldn’t worry as much about Bob Cratchit’s strapping teenage son. The story would be different if Tiny Tim were a barrel-chested youth dashing about the countryside filled with youth and vigor.”
Elmore held up his hands placatingly. “Easy, pal. No need to get your knickers in a twist. I’m not one of those critics who think your characters are one-dimensional.”
Charles jumped to his feet and roared, “One-dimensional? How dare you, sir?”
Elmore laughed. “Come on, you have to admit that Scrooge had no hobbies other than being a miser. He didn’t collect stamps, for example. At least the miser in Silas Marner got to play with his gold coins. Scrooge just had entries in a ledger book.”
Charles slapped his hat onto his head. “You are such a connoisseur of misers? I’ll leave you with the check then. Good day!” He stomped out, slamming the door behind him.
“Such a hot temper,” Aristotle said. “But you do him a disservice, you know. His characters are created with great care. Each is realistic, meaning each acts while wearing the mask he must wear to comply with what society expects. Their natures are revealed to the reader through their speech and actions.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that, my friend,” Elmore said. He tossed a few bills onto the table and drained the last of his beer. “I have to go. It was good catching up with you. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”
He left Aristotle sitting alone, sipping his wine and watching the game on TV.