It’s Personal: Some Provisional Insight into Creating Fictional Characters through Research

My character Tim is lonely like I imagine my old friend was lonely all those months he spent working for a lumber company, getting on planes and flying across the country.

About what they had him doing I know only the vaguest details. I once watched several rather lengthy promotional videos I found posted on the company’s website, thinking I might glean some larger, more detailed sense of the work. I’d already based the character on my friend, I’d already written half a novel about this young man. What I was after was a door through which I might have my character walk.

I suppose I should have known better.

One shot in one of the videos shows the manager trainee crossing an asphalt lot toward stacks of blonde lumber. The sky is overcast. A truck waits, its tailgate dropped. The manager trainee climbs onto a forklift and drives a loaded pallet around to the back of the truck. In the voice-over track, and then in a face-to-face interview shot, the manager trainee talks about making one’s own opportunities, taking a shot. And about discipline, and hard work and putting in the time. And how it’s all about making out of the whole experience what you wanted.

I don’t know. I didn’t fully buy what the man was saying. His words sounded hollow. Show up, do the job, and — five-figure income? Benefits? Satisfaction?

What’s more, I don’t think my character Tim buys the logic. He wants to; but there’s a disconnect. He’d not getting the charge he’s supposed to get working for a company that seems to offer the moon to whomever makes the best of the opportunity, does the hard work, shows discipline and puts in the time.

I don’t think my friend did, either. Bought into the logic, I mean.

My friend, when I visited him while he lived in the hilly country just south of Pittsburgh, had been consolidating inventory. That meant he went around the country closing up stores, overseeing crews of temp workers, emptying warehouses of all materials, shelving units, computers and office supplies. I guess the buildings would be sold. There was a lumber lot just north of where my friend and I grew up — a red warehouse shop and couple covered sections where lumber was stored. It is now no longer a lumber shop. I can’t remember exactly what business is housed in that warehouse. It’s been months since I’ve driven past, months since my wife and I last traveled home.

That’s another story.

What I’m trying to say about that warehouse, that store: I imagine it suffered the same fate as all those shops my friend went around closing up. Staying in all those hotel rooms, eating bar food, watching television, talking on the phone. Driving rental cars to and from the job site three, four days at a stretch. A stranger in charge of other strangers, many of whom went on lunch breaks and didn’t return for the afternoon hours.

He lived with his girlfriend, to whom he’s now married, in a duplex home built over a weedy back alley. The rest of the town was working-class, a little weather-beaten but modest, humble, well-kept. The day before I arrived, his landlord had come by to fix a leaking pipe downstairs. They put up a couple tie-dyed tapestries over the street-side windows to preclude any nosy neighbors from peaking in. (I guess my friend’s girlfriend had noticed more than a few times that cars would pull up across the street and sit there a while before taking off. And at night a few neighbors would sit outside on darkened porches, smoking. These were strange men neither my friend nor she knew from Adam. We’d all been raised in a quiet farm town where everyone knew everyone. They were now strangers living in a depressed part of the country among a host of strangers who owed them nothing and were capable of anything. So they hung tapestries and kept the doors locked and she slept with the lights on downstairs all night.)

Next door there lived a family. I don’t remember how many kids.

I remember we went to a biker bar and ate chicken wings for dinner. When we got home I showed him a story I’d written — a piece loosely based on a mutual friend of ours who’d once driven his car onto the grass of the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum’s spacious northern lot. He’d had a drug-addicted no-account father who’d broken into their house and stolen things. 

I read him a paragraph of the story. What had my friend said exactly after listening to this excerpt? It drives me nuts I can’t recall. I want to so badly. Why? I don’t know. Accuracy, perhaps. Truth.

If I can remember, I can go back. Maybe that’s it.

The gist of it was this: if the story didn’t pick up right away, his interest waned or outright died.

The next morning we went for a run up the hill to the top of the town and back down. My friend, on account of the long hours and the traveling he was doing, doubled back early and was outside shirtless and sweating, yanking a low-hanging limb out the oak in his front yard when I returned.

I’d gone through the grassy park at the center of town. I’d gone past the post office. I was thinking, what would I say about this place if I were to write about it? I was thinking, I’m fit and I’m strong and I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and these hills are challenging hills to run but I like the way the challenge makes me feel — wasted, emptied, clean. I was thinking I shouldn’t feel so proudly about my health, that my feelings bordered on hubris and I didn’t want to seem cocky. I didn’t want to be cocky. I was so concerned about not seeming cocky because I was cocky, I think. I think I still am. I think my cockiness has at times left me feeling extremely closed off from everyone, especially the people I care about. I believe it still does.

I tried to stay such feelings then. I know this for fact, because I agreed with my friend that it was awfully hot. I helped him pull on the branches. He mentioned the way some of the higher hanging branches scratched the roof. He was afraid of the shingles getting damaged, the roof leaking. It wasn’t his house, but still. I suppose the work he was doing selling lumber and construction supplies had given him insight into how homes were built and maintained. Probably the scratching sounds the limbs made woke him and his girlfriend nights.

Tim doesn’t have a girlfriend. He thinks of one girl, goes after another, and nearly falls for a third all in one night. So the story goes so far. His life has been de-centered — by what, I’m still trying to figure out. By work, partly. I believe there’s something about the job he’s doing that strikes against some core value he can’t quite name and likely doesn’t know he holds. A few scenes with a friend’s children make him appear very closed, while a few later scenes with some young adults looking for a party show him sinking into some affectation — something like cockiness, or smugness.

I never learned what my friend felt about the work he was doing. And though I wrote up in the first line of this that I thought my friend was lonely during all those times, I think I was lying. I mean, I think what I was imagining wasn’t my friend’s abject loneliness. He really couldn’t have been all that lonely, not deeply lonely in the way my character Tim is; he had the love of his life to come home to, for one; and though he admitted to me that he wasn’t entirely happy with the work he was doing, he wasn’t ungrateful for the fact he had work to do, and he recognized the resume-building potential of that work, to boot.

What I think I meant when I wrote the first sentence of this post was that Tim represents my attempt to understand what it would feel like for someone to experience the same stab of loneliness my friend surely felt going to sleep alone in all those hotel rooms all over the country all. The. Time. Like: over and over and over again, at home and away from home, in dreams and in waking life — even when with family, the people who’re supposed to know you best and accept you, warts and all.

I worry sometimes about how loose and fast I’ve played it with the details of Tim’s day-to-day duties on the job. I had to fabricate many of these details, confabulating some half-formed version of the truth using what I learned from those promotional videos and what I gathered listening to my friend talk about temp workers and counter tasks and dismantling shelves and after-dinner phone calls home — things as he’d seen them. It may be that eventually much of the writing I’ve done into Tim’s work gets lifted out of the working draft to quicken pacing. I hope my readers, whoever they may be, urge me to make such edits; I can’t seem to convince myself to do so, in part because I think I’ve invested something of my own loneliness into the conjuring of Tim’s.


Image credit: Alex Jones via Unsplash



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