A Barbecue-Basted Lesson in Creating Honest Characters

Bessinger's BBQ SauceWhat you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.

Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.

First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.

The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …

… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.

Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”

And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.

But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.

Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.

Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.

And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.

The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.

And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.

Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?

I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!

I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.

This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?

The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.

But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.

Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.

So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.

Waiting for Superman

For all the good in my life every day, the last week has been challenging. “Too many difficult conversations,” I told my wife last night. “I think I’m done with difficult conversations for a while.”

Then I saw this. I wonder what kind of sap I am that I find it hard to let emotions flow at times of real crisis, but get choked up by the decidedly non-campy, non-cheesy trailer for the upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.

But then I remember that the largest tragedies come down to small things. Things like fathers and sons. Things like finding who you are (even if who you are isn’t an extraterrestrial superhero). And things like hope.

I know this film (and most of those that I love) are fantasy. The only bases in reality they have are the emotions they can represent and manifest. So I’ll vow to share this movie with my son when it comes out. Then, for a brief moment escaping the summer heat, we’ll enjoy the illusion that no matter how bad things get, there will be some incredibly powerful and benevolent force that will protect us.

And I’ll put my arm around him and remind him that in the absence of a man of steel, that job – at least where he, his mother and sister are concerned – will be up to me.

The Cranky Reader Redux

Back in October I wrote here about the Blessings of the Cranky Reader, in which I ruminated on the emotional and creative repercussions of receiving my first 1-star, boy-this-book-really-sucks review for my novel Immaculate Deception.

Strangely, in the last couple of days that review has disappeared from Amazon. I was aware that Amazon had started paring down the reviews of some authors’ works when they might have been written by those who could profit from the book doing well, but this certainly didn’t fall into that category. Amazon has also targeted “competing” authors who write poor reviews of their peers’ books, but this guy seemed more of a literary wannabe who took pleasure in eviscerating the work of others than someone who would be able to create on his own.

So now I’m trying to decide if the author of that review had a change of heart, or realized that because I had blogged about it his review might have gotten a lot more attention than he originally intended.

I’m not sure either way, but I’m going on record here to say that while I did direct people specifically to that review for purposes of illustrating the points in my earlier blog entry, at no point did I solicit any flaming, complaints or commentary from anyone who might have taken issue with what he review said. I don’t work that way, and was fully prepared to let that review stand as a testament to someone having read my book and just not liking it.

In fact (and this does sound a little weird), I kind of miss that brutal review. It was a nice little link to the real – a reminder that I should never start believing my own hype and that we’re never as good as we think we are, but we should still always strive to be better.

So adieu, Mr. Cranky Reader. I’m sure you’ll find other folks’ books to bash. But I just want you to know that I still appreciate you reading mine and taking the time out to bash it yourself.

Get It the F**k Out!

I’m not a children’s author (although I might be some day). But in years and years of consuming entertainment meant for kids – and for the past seven years being the parent of small kids – the one thing I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t talk down to the kids, and you should always remember that there’s probably an adult either reading the story or viewing the program/film alongside those who fit the primary demographic.

This isn’t a children’s book, but Go The Fuck to Sleep is certainly written and illustrated to reflect that genre, and is most certainly aimed ONLY at the parents of those kids who seem to fight sleep like a cat fights a bath – biting, clawing, hissing, spitting and caterwauling included.

The spin that author Adam Mansbach and illustrator Ricardo Cortes put on this kids book paradigm (there’s a word you won’t see me use often) was sheer brilliance from both a humor and marketing standpoint. And in spite of (and probably directly because of) it’s lewd title, it has shot to the top of many to-buy or have-bought lists. It gives grown-ups what we’ve always gotten from the best kids shows. Looney Toons weren’t originally intended for kids and often reflected some more adult themes. Today, one episode of Phineas & Ferb can contain more grown-up in-jokes than one mind can even process.

Mansbach is likely all too aware of that, and so he wrote a “kids” book aimed solely at adults. Did it pay off? Let’s just say this: at the moment I write this, it sits confidently atop Amazon’s sales rankings for not just the parenting or humor category, but among all the books Amazon sells lumped together.

The lessons in this are two: First, never forget that some adult has to serve as the intermediary for kids to enjoy much of their entertainment, so it should, at some level, appeal to them, too. While GTFTS is only for grown-ups, it takes that truism to the farthest extent.

 The second lesson is that you shouldn’t abandon your “nutty” ideas. This guy is a dad who secretly thought the very words of his title – just like zillions of other parents – and instead of silently stewing about it turned it into something creative and brilliant and now universally popular.

My nutty ideas for ID were kicking around in my head long before I wrote a word. I’d sit in my Methodist Church youth group as a teen and silently mock the self-righteous counselors who would try to steer me down a path I thought was theologically bogus. I bore early suspicion for televangelists. I internalized the injustices of the newsroom and elsewhere in the working world and sat amused as Baby Boomers tried their darndest to deny the truth of time’s passage. And it all spilled out onto the page.

It’s that stuff – the secret angers, aggravations, resentments and amusements – that give good fiction its soul and brings the characters and situations alive. And even though it’s small and funny and totally inappropriate for kids, Go The Fuck to Sleep deeply reflects those parental frustrations that are at the core of raising young kids. And for that the book deserves to be on top.