As a novelist, certain characters, as I understand them, have to be portrayed in a certain specific way. It may be because the character is based on a real person, so those characteristics are tied to reality and changing them will impair the character’s realism. It may also be because the character has a very special function in the story, possibly a metaphorical or thematic function so a change in those particulars can derail the entire story. But portraying them in colored pencil is not nearly so arcane. Colored pencil is my own preferred medium, the one I know best how to use as an artist.
These characters are not specifically people. They are created in nature when a person dies in a blizzard by freezing to death. They act like banshees in that they serve both as omens of impending death, and collectors of the spirit forms of the deceased. Snow ghosts after a manner of speaking.
They are from my novel Snow Babies and give the book its name. Of course, they are not the only snow babies that the title refers to. But they are essential to the basic theme of the story.
Brent is the leader of the Pirates. He appears in the novels Superchicken, and The Baby Werewolf, though I have another couple of stories in my head where he plays an important role as well.
Brent is an amalgam of two real people. One was a boy from my boyhood gang, and the other was a student I taught more than a decade after that. He is a farm boy, naturally outgoing and athletic, but also a bit of a bully and a bigger bit of a jerk, especially around girls.
Miss Francis “Franny” Morgan
Miss Morgan is a middle school teacher based on a real-life colleague who had a gift for reaching and teaching challenging kids, though she’s also got a bit of me in her since the major challenges she faces in the story are mostly things that happened to me, and I made her an English teacher like me instead of the Science teacher she really was. She is the main character in the novel that bears her name, Magical Miss Morgan. She is also a minor character in Superchicken, almost twenty years earlier in time. I pictured her wearing a purple paisley dress to represent her magical abilities. That magic is, of course, the ability to make stories come to life through imagination and creativity.
Sean “Cudgel” Murphy
Cudgel is “Grampy” of the Murphy Clan, living in the home of his eldest son Warren. He is basically a clown character, being an irascible, evil old man who loves his family, only ever drives his beloved Austin Hereford motor car (“the best goddam car in the whole goddam world from 1954”), and will fight for any reason or excuse at the drop of a hat.
He has already played a role in the novels The Bicycle-Wheel Genius and Snow Babies. And I hope to use him in several more. He is loosely based on several old men I have known throughout my life, but he functions mainly as a clown, a comic relief character that breaks up the tension in developing plots.
So there you have some characters that I have written about in my novels and illustrated in living colored pencil.
Pursuing the muse that makes you a slave to the difficulties of a creative life leads you to places and experiences you never intended to visit.
Such is the tale of following Cissy Moonskipper down the White Rabbit’s hole.
A few days ago I told you how I found an old pen and ink drawing, scanned it, colored it, and then scanned it again. It became the day’s blog post, a short, ironic short story about a character stranded alone on a space ship in deep uncharted space.
The punch line was that she found a copy of Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe in the bridge storage bin.
The picture got photoshopped into a potential cover for a book. And I began obsessing about how to write a story that parallels that really old book about a shipwrecked lonely man.
I couldn’t resist following that White Rabbit of Sudden Inspiration down into the maze of writing a new science fiction… novella? It needs to be short and sweet. But it has the feeling already of something that I have never ever done before in story-telling.
This, of course, is Friday. She’s a Lupin girl left aboard the spaceship by the invading pirate who killed Cissy’s older half-brother before getting himself disintegrated. She is the second character needed to carry out the parody of the Robinson Crusoe story.
And while I was creating this character, I decided to create an illustration of the starship too. The story is set aboard the free-trader named Dark Moon’s Dreaded Luck.
So, I am now in uncharted territory. Which bottle do I drink from? Which cookie do I chew? I already know how the story ends, but getting there will be a magical adventure. And it seems like other things are totally on hold because of it. I am trapped in that rabbit hole. And God only knows how long it will take.
There is a certain amount of worry now in Mickeytown. My hands have begun to tremble. I see things that aren’t there. I have become excessively forgetful. Possibly Parkinson’s… but not diagnosed by a doctor yet.
Maybe it’s only paranoia… but that’s a Parkinson’s symptom too.
And it worries me because I need to be able to draw new Paffoonies. But it is definitely becoming harder.
Yesterday, when my computer was breaking down again, the scanner miraculously reconnected itself and began to work.
I scanned this old pen-and-ink drawing.
Do I know why I drew it, or what it is supposed to be about?
I do not.
But I can still swirl colored pencils and color within the lines, at least as well as I did when I was nine.
You may remember this one from yesterday,
Of course, forgetful me, I couldn’t remember where I had stored my best art pencils. I had to crack open the bag of old school pencils that I still have from my last hurrah as a Texas pedagogue (a word that means a teacher of children, not that other thing that the evil-minded ones among you were probably thinking.)
So, now I have a colored picture of a young-girl space traveler. What to do with it?
Like any old mad god who makes a girl come to life like this (old mad god of colored pencils, a little “g” god, not a blasphemous big “G” one,) I needed to name her and give her a story, a purpose in life.
So, I called her Cissy Moonskipper (a suitably satirical and comic sort of name playing off of Luke Skywalker.)
And I stranded her on a family-owned free-trader starship, alone in deep space. Her family is gone permanently. The ship has everything she needs to survive. She is a sole-survivor on a deserted island in deep space in an unexplored star system. And all she has is a starship owner’s manual and a copy of the novel Robinson Crusoe.
So, I added a background and now I have started a new book idea. That is essentially what a Paffooney is. Words and pictures by little ol’ me.
Yes, you heard right. (Well, you did if you read the title out loud.) Real writers are subject to madness. I decided this because I found the pattern in real writing that I actually value as good writing.
Case in Point; Ernest Hemingway
The first book of Hemingway that I read in high school was For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a book about World War One, being an ambulance driver on the battle field, the transformations that combat experiences have on the soul, and trying to deal with the love of a woman, unsuccessfully, while the soul-sucking of recovery from battle is still taking place in your head. The story has a first-person narrator. It is told in a journalistic style that only presents the facts and doesn’t do any of the thinking and feeling for you. It makes the meaning of the story all happen in the reader’s head, as if the writer is not telling you what to think. But he actually is. And doing it masterfully. Of course, it captured me horribly because at the time I read it, the Viet Nam War was winding down, I had a draft number after turning 18 in 1974, and the Khmer Rouge attacked and took control of the SS Mayaguez in May of 1975, threatening to reignite the war and expand it into Cambodia. A wonderful book to read when you are faced with grim reality and the unfolding path to madness before you.
I also read The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea while in college as an English Major. I defy you to read either of those books and not see the madness gnawing at the writer.
Ernest Hemingway went mad from the post traumatic struggles he underwent as a consequence of WWI. His life ended when he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Deep depression is a form of madness.
Case in Point; Edgar Allen Poe
Of course, I chose the portraits of these authors on the basis of which ones are the most haunting I could find. Poe’s stare captured here reveals a pair of eyes that have seen the dark depths of his own soul, a horror you can’t compare to anyone else’s except through the words of a writer, because you can’t see into someone else’s soul in any other way. Your eyes weren’t built to do that.
And we all know the kind of stories and poems he wrote. My first encounter with Poe’s writing was either The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, or the poem, “The Bells“, all of which are deeply disturbing, and all of which I read in the Eighth Grade in Mrs. Erdman’s Class.
Poe became mad due to life-long grinding poverty brought about by foster parents who loved him and had money enough, but were too firmly devoted to the idea that helping someone out financially is a weakness not to be contemplated. His young wife died an early death from lack of funds for things like heat in the winter and food on a daily basis.
We don’t fully know why the madness caused his mysterious death. He may have had rabies when he died. Or it may have been a toxic reaction to large quantities of alcohol. Or he may have died from brain injuries due to an unexplained kidnapping and beating. But what we do know is that he loved certain people passionately and hated certain people passionately through his literary criticism of their writing. In fact, one of the authors he hated may have killed him as a murderous act of revenge.
Case in Point; Charles Dickens
When one thinks of Charles Dickens as a writer, madness is rarely the thing that comes first to mind. He wrote socially-observant comedies that emphasized engaging characters and detailed understandings of the settings and the times. There are a large number of clowns and comic villains in his stories. And his works seem a bit overbalanced against the darkness of the soul.
And yet he has his dark moments. I first read Dickens in Seventh Grade through The Christmas Carol. But Marley’s ghost and his ilk, especially the spectral Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come chilled me to the bone. I wept at the death of Tiny Tim even though it meant the other boys in my class could see me crying and would make me pay a price outside of the classroom.
On my own I went on to read more Dickens, including The Old Curiosity Shop in high school, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities,David Copperfield and Great Expectations in college. I further read Oliver Twist while teaching Eighth Grade English. I also read my first author-biography of Charles Dickens, shortly after reading The Old Curiosity Shop.
I soon realized how much of his stories were autobiographical. Wilkins Micawber is a portrait of his own father and his time in the poorhouse. Wackford Squeers and other unflattering depictions of education reflected his own time in British boys’ schools where the odds of being molested by upper classmen were high. And the fact that a beloved young female relative died in his arms when he was barely out of boyhood probably caused the infamous death of the character Little Nell in the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.
There is madness in Dickens too. I mean, how can your writing reach the very heights of the Himalayas if it has never experienced the deepest depths of the ocean?
Case in Point; J.D. Salinger
Yes, I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. It was a right of passage in 1974. It was one of the three books that set me on my lifelong quest to find the best book ever written. (The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy and the Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry are the other two.) It is a book that first captured me by the feelings in the brain with the central image alluded to in the title. Holden Caufield (Salinger later confessed that this narrator was really him) dreamed that he was in a field a rye where children are playing and romping with abandon. Behind Holden is a bottomless cliff. As children occasionally run towards him and the cliff behind him, heedless and not seeing the danger, he decides he must catch them and turn them back the other way. And this is what the book is, Holden’s adventures for the first time in the adult world, experiencing the possible dangers, and then turning the readers around, back into the field of rye.
I of course read Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters afterwards in college. Buddy Glass, who narrates the story of brother Seymour’s suicide, is also an admitted character-identity for Salinger himself.
Has Salinger, too, gone mad? You can ask that about a man who suddenly stopped writing at the height of his success, and then ran away to a small shed in the woods where he wrote mash notes to teenage girls for twenty years?
Final Case in Point; Mickey
And why would I ever think Mickey is mad?
Well… this list is long.
Mickey was sexually assaulted by an older boy at ten. You can see the effects of that in all of his writings, including this one.
He’s fool enough to think he might be a real writer.
When he is in his cartoonist’s head, he portrays himself as a purple mouse. When he’s in his teacher head, he’s Reluctant Rabbit.
He thinks he can recognize great writing when he reads it.
He understands the books of H.P. Lovecraft far too well.
And he seems to recognize that same madness that can be found in Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, JD Salinger, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, and too many more that could also be named… in himself.
Eli Tragedy, the old Wizard of the Lower Caverns, returned from Dunsanytowne with his apprentice, Bob, carrying their weekly groceries in Bob’s bag of holding.
“Do you think Mickey finished washing the curtains while we were gone?” Bob innocently asked.
Poor Bob. He was not particularly smart. Sometimes he forgot to wear pants.
But the grumbling old wizard, half-elf, half-human, and half -fermented gingleyberry juice, had to admit, at least to himself, that Poor Bob was far more likeable than that smelly, uppity, idiotic were-rat that was his second apprentice. That lazy, stupid half-rodent was no end of trouble. Maybe Eli needed to give Mickey one of his three halves to try and complete the boy. But not the half-fermented half.
“So, when’s the next full moon, Bob? When does that rat-thing turn back into a real boy so I can smack his behind with the rod of discipline and have him actually feel it?”
“Master, Mickey’s curse specifies that he can only be a real boy for a week on the next blue moon… and that’s not for a long time in the future.”
“Real shame, that is.”
Of course, when they went inside the wizard’s sandstone tower. Mickey was trying to use Eli’s magic hat to clean the flying-monkey poop off of the curtains, and was casting the scrubbing spell backwards, thus increasing the foul dirt that wouldn’t even be there if he hadn’t had the flying-monkey party without getting permission from Eli first.
“Mickey! Stop that! You are supposed to say, ‘Removere simia faecibus exturbandis opitulatur’ not ‘Addere simia faecibus exturbandis opitulatur!”
“Oops!” said Mickey.
“Oh, no! Not you!” said the mysteriously grim stranger sitting at the kitchen table.
The stranger didn’t so much stand up with his ax from his chair at the table as UNCOIL with his ax from the chair at the table.
“Mickey, who is this stranger you didn’t have permission to invite into our tower?”
“He says he is the Booger-Man, Master.”
“That’s Boogeyman, rat-boy.”
Mickey shrugged. “I thought Booger-Man sounded more correct.”
“Ah, so you are here to rob a poor old man’s sandstone hovel?”
“No! Not now that I know it’s YOUR tower!” the Boogerman said vehemently. “You don’t recognize me?”
“No. Should I?”
“It’s me, Pollox the Highwayman. Although, you had probably better call me Paw-Lucks now.”
“Ah, yes! You tried to steal from me on the road to the Cillyburg Cathedral.”
“Yes, and all you had was this magic ax You told me it would make me into an entirely new man.”
“The Wildman’s Ax of Magical Tax Avoidance and Soldier Slaying. I remember it well. It seems to have worked quite like it was supposed to.”
“Every time I fought I soldier, he slew me. And when I returned to life I had a new patch of shaggy white fur, or a new fang, or a bad case of mange.”
“And nobody ever asked you to pay taxes again, did they?”
“I won’t rob you this time, wizard. Just take back the ax and make me human again.”
“Can’t do it. I believe in paying my taxes. But, you can have Mickey. The boy can carry the ax for you.”
The Booger-man took one look at the young were-rat, turned even more pale than the white he already was, and ran out of the tower roaring in fear.
The first chapter of the story of my life does not open with my birth. It begins with my first memories around the age of three or four, when I first really became aware and my mind began seriously pulling itself together. Similarly, it will not ultimately end the final chapter when the lights go out and I pass away. I myself will not be able to write that particular sentence because, as I die, I probably won’t be in the act of writing about it.
This topic comes up because I have been thinking long and hard about how my AeroQuest series is going to end.
The original story in my terrible first-published novel has been divided into five different parts. Admittedly they are not as stand-alone in nature as I had originally intended.
Of course, since it all evolved from an on-going role-playing game, it was never really supposed to have an end point. And if I manage to finish this number-five novel, I already have a story to fill the number-six novel. It will be called Galactic Fire and the story is already tied to the other five.
At the same time, I am rewriting and updating Stardusters and Space Lizards. This too is an ongoing story. As a sequel to Catch a Falling Star, it takes up the tale of the aliens who tried and failed to invade a small town in Iowa. It takes them to a dying planet where the population of meat-eating lizard people are determined to make themselves extinct.
So, naturally, this book has the problem of the need to kill characters who are not the villain. Characters I have come to love. One of the characters shown on this new cover was supposed to tragically die during the climactic battle of the book. It began my awareness of how I can’t seem to end a novel without killing characters.
Of my fifteen existing novels, only Superchicken and A Field Guide to Fauns make it to the end of the story without killing a character.
I am lucky society doesn’t charge authors with murder for killing off characters in their books. After all, we fiction writers are a murderous lot. And characters are real people, at least to the author.
But, life as a story, is like that. Nobody that we have photographs of makes it out alive. And all the exceptions to the general rule may be highly metaphorical in actual reality.
The character in my initial Paffooney, Orben Wallace from The Bicycle-Wheel Genius, is a good example of the ongoing nature of life’s story. I call that book a prequel-equal-sequel because it tells a story that begins before Catch a Falling Star, includes some of the same story as that book, and ends with a story that occurs well after the other story departs for outer space.
I fully expect my own life to end its story like that one did. There is a story that comes both before and after. Birth-to-death stories are always part of something larger. And it is all connected.
Today’s post is full of portraits of imaginary people. Some of these are based on real people who posed for them or I had a photo of. Others, even if they are based on characters who were once real people I knew, are entirely made up out of my head.
I know I am mixing metaphors again. It is supposed to be blueBIRDS of happiness. But not only am I starting this essay with a berry theme, I happen to be allergic to blueberries, thus solidly symbolizing my somewhat complicated relationship to the state of being truly happy.
You see, blueberries are full of antioxidants that are beneficial in so many ways that I really need that it seems absolutely a bitter irony that they make me sick to my stomach and constrict my lungs. I used to love eating blueberry muffins and blueberry pancakes, as well as fresh, cold ripe berries. They are good for my strained urinary tract and my glaucoma-plagued eyes. They help stave off cancer and help circulation to prevent heart disease. They are good for your blood pressure. But I also learned the hard way that they can stop me from breathing, a habit I really don’t wish to give up.
It is, unfortunately, a universal fact that no human life ever ran on one-hundred percent happiness. It is not possible to be a living, breathing, feeling human bean without knowing a little sadness… a little tragedy… a fair share of sorrow. In fact, I think it must be a rule that the happiest people you know have faced some of the hardest things you can imagine. My Great Uncle Harry was never able to talk about his experiences in Normandy during World War II. But I never knew a man who appreciated a good joke and a laugh more. My Grandpa Aldrich, my mother’s father, was probably the happiest man I ever knew, but his childhood was made difficult because of his mother’s dark secret, and how his father handled the truth about his birth. I too am a generally happy person. Did you know I have been in a psychiatric hospital after midnight admitting someone I love to the suicide-prevention ward? And I have had serious discussions on more than one occasion with more than one other person who was seriously discussing self-harm with me. I think there is probably no one in this life who truly appreciates happiness that hasn’t stared at least once into the dark eyes of despair.
It goes a long way towards explaining why I included a picture of Blueberry Bates in this essay. She’s a character in more than one of my novels, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius, Magical Miss Morgan, and Kingdoms Under the Earth.
Blueberry blames herself for the death of her mother. She was born a cyanotic, or blue, baby at the same time that her mother went into cardiac arrest during childbirth. The tragedy of her birth broke her father’s relationship to reality. He rejected the little boy who had been born to him because the mother, his beloved wife had died in the process. It fell to Blueberry’s two older sisters to take the baby, care for it, and give it a name.
You’ve probably figured out by now that Blueberry was raised as a girl even though she had a penis because her father would never have accepted the son whose birth killed his wife. He secretly blamed himself because the only reason they had a third child was because he so desperately wanted a son. So, he ended up with three daughters, the youngest one with a terrible secret that she really didn’t understand. And Mr. Bates never really came around to accepting that third daughter either. She was raised by her sisters Becky and Carla, and her Aunt Wilma, her father’s unmarried sister. And it took years of therapy and visits to the specialist in Minnesota who became the expert on gender dysphoria to reach the determination that Blueberry was going to be a girl and would transition when she was old enough. You are probably aware that this is a hard thing to deal with, especially when you don’t have any actual parents to help you deal with it.
But Blueberry is one of the happiest characters I have created in my fiction so far. She loves to draw, especially with colored pencil. She loves her boyfriend, Mike Murphy, to whom she revealed the truth, and in spite of Mike’s struggles with it, he eventually came to accept her not only as a girl, but as a girl he was in love with. That was a choice that didn’t sit well with Mike’s best friend, Tim Kellogg. Tim would have to come to terms with either accepting Blue as a girl, or losing his best friend. And that took more than one novel to decide.
Happiness is like that. The higher your kite flies in the April breeze, the harder it crashes to the ground. And if it is not destroyed in the fall, it longs to fly high again.
Happiness is a blueberry. And I like the taste very much. But I am also allergic to blueberries.