We’ve all known people about whom we’ve said, “he (or she) is such a character.” Often we follow this statement by shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, or perhaps adding a “bless his heart.” What is it about these folks that makes them so interesting and unforgettable? How can we make our fictional characters just as compelling, without sacrificing credibility or resorting to stereotype?
In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card suggests answering three key reader questions: So What? Oh Yeah? and Huh? Why should the reader care what goes on in this story, is it believable, and is it clear what’s happening?
The characters who people the tantalizing short story and novel excerpts below answer the three questions in marvelous and disparate ways. Take a walk now with a hermit guarding a secret in a Tuscan villa, a young woman haunted by her violent father’s death and the role she may have played in it, a craftsman more skilled at online dating than at life, a woman with a startling technique for coping with the loss of her beloved pet, and a plant lover with a missing hand who finds his way back into the world after his son commits a horrible crime.
– Heather Newton, Instructor, “Such a Character” class, Spring 2014
The Sixth Veil (novel excerpt)
by PATRICK CUMBY
The old man hurried toward the villa to investigate the calamitous sound of brick and stone collapsing from a small outbuilding that had once been a farm shed but had been, over the years, converted into a hermit’s lair—a one-room cottage with a cast-iron woodstove, a rough wooden table, and most wondrously, an exquisite wrought-iron bed made in Paris in the eighteenth century.
He waited until the cloud of mortar dust and pigeon guano cleared, and then he stepped into the high arch from which the cloud had poured. It was not the first time a floor had collapsed in the ancient villa, but it was the first time in many years, and he cursed, for he had worked hard to shore the weakest sections with long iron poles and jacks.
Angular sunrays from the second-floor windows shot through the dust and illuminated the damage. Half the floor had collapsed, the hewn wooden joists weakened by decades of exposure to rainwater streaming through empty window frames. He looked up at the roof beams, thirty feet above his head, now exposed for the first time in two centuries, and the impression was one of a cathedral with God's light shining through the dust onto an altar, newly formed by the mound of debris.
He saw her boot first, protruding from the wreckage at an odd angle. He stared at the unexpected sight, seeing it but not really comprehending what he saw. Then he realized that the boot was attached to a leg, scratched and bleeding, and then he saw the backpack, white from the settling dust.
His first reaction was anger at the intruder, then alarm that the carabinieri would have to be involved, but then he was ashamed, and he rushed forward, expecting the worst. It was a woman, a girl really, her long red hair pulled into a tight braid. He crouched over the debris and knelt next to her. She lay on her stomach, face to the side, legs splayed at extreme angles. She was white with dust, like a statue of marble, except where small rivulets of blood from her scalp streamed down her forehead, displacing the dust and revealing her humanity.
He watched for movement. The backpack did not rise or fall; the eyelids did not flutter. He stared up into the sunlight and cursed his bad fortune. Why this, why now, he asked God, though he knew there would be no answer for there was no God. This was not fate; this was simply bad fortune. But why now, when he was so close to his goal?
For a brief instant he considered burying the body. But from her expensive clothes and backpack he knew her to be a tourist, and if she vanished she would be looked for, and the carabinieri would eventually be here. Better to alert the authorities; there would be an uproar, but not so much as if they discovered her dead body beneath his vineyard.
He stared at the light. The rays were at a low angle. His aging Vespa cart could not make the trip to Buonconvento before nightfall. He cursed again. He didn't relish the thought of hosting a dead body overnight. He didn't believe in spirits, or ghosts, for after all, if there was no God, how could there be an afterlife. But that certainty didn't diminish his concern.
A dozen pigeons fluttered overhead, loud and confused and echoing in the newly enlarged space. He took a deep breath and reached out to her and touched the skin of her shoulder, his first contact with another person in years. It was still warm and damp with sweat. Hikers walked past the podere regularly, mostly American or German tourists, drinking in the perceived magic of Tuscany, delighting as he once had in the solemn beauty of the place. Very few ignored the fences and warning signs posted at the edges of the property, but two or three times a year he was forced to eject curious hikers intent on exploring the ruins of the farm compound.
But now this. He shook his head and sat back on his haunches, ignoring the pain in his back. Why now? When he was so close? He looked once again up into the sunrays, into the unblinking eye of God. “Damn you,” he said, but as expected there was no answer.
He looked into her face. She was a teenager, youth still rounding and softening her features. Someone's daughter, on a grand adventure of self-discovery, now ended in tragedy. A great remorse flooded him, and it was the first new emotion other than anger and determination that he had felt in many years. Perhaps his own daughter, had she lived past childhood, would have made such a journey, exploring the world with the courage and curiosity of youth. He himself had long forgotten his own joy at discovery. His world was now confined to the podere: the house and the grove and the vineyard and the project. The rest of the universe no longer existed, that is, until this girl from the forgotten outside had trespassed.
He felt the movement under his fingertips, still resting on her shoulder. He jerked his hand back. Her face twitched, and she uttered a low moan.
He glanced up into the sunrays once again, suspiciously, then stood and lifted her off the altar of debris.
A Daughter of Danu (novel excerpt)
by HELENE GROARKE
Running and running, her feet were slipping and sliding on wet fallen oak leaves. She nearly tripped over the gnarled network of roots under her feet. She shivered in the cold misting rain. Her heart was pounding under her ribs, ready to burst. Her leg muscles were tight with painful spasms, but she forced them on. Dusky light shadowed the woods, filtering through the tall trees. She ran left, then right, weaving through the bushes and brambles, twigs and thorns scraping the skin on her shins. The pain in her chest was sharp, like a knife in her diaphragm with her every breath.
The familiar howling, drunken voice of her father called out to her. He was not far behind. Her only hope for escape was that she knew these woods better than he did. She knew every tree, creek, hill, and gully. She knew every creature that made these woods their home. They knew her, too.
“Leanna, where are you, girl?” The drunken voice was closer behind. “You get back here. If you don’t, I’m gonna whoop your ass like you never seen! Leanna, you hear me, you whore! It’s time I fixed you for good!”
She trembled as he hollered, her hot salty tears mixed with the icy rain on her face. She had to stop, just for a moment, to catch her breath. She hid, leaning against a large pine, peering from behind it. She saw the familiar form of her father drenched with rain and sweat, his stained white tee shirt clinging to his back and chest. His face was crimson red and twisted with rage. He circled around, and she saw his right hand held something. It was long and metal, and gleamed as the dusky light caught it. He circled around and around, fervently looking for his victim, muttering curses under his breath.
She heard a low, nasty growl. She gripped the tree, digging her fingernails under the bark. She heard the rustle of the brambles, then sensed something moving from behind her. Suddenly, her view of her father was blocked by a large, dark, growling mass of fur as it crossed between them. She closed her eyes tightly. She heard unholy screams, the crunch of bones crushed, and flesh ripped from the bone. Finally, she heard gurgling and gasping breaths. Leanna wanted to cover her ears, but she was unable to command her muscles to move. Then, she heard the rasping of the body being dragged on the rough ground off into the darkness. Then it all stopped. There was silence.
Caught (short story excerpt)
by STEPHANIE BIZIEWSKI
Peter joined Match.com in November and went right to work shopping around to see who was available. Available and sexually attractive, that is. He’d just bought a house in Johnson City, Tennessee, and figured into his decision that there’d be plenty of new women in the town to meet. But Peter was no fool. He also had a backup plan. He was familiar with Asheville, sixty miles away, and consciously anticipated that if no one of interest turned up close to home, the selection of females in the artsy, liberal city in Western North Carolina would surely produce someone to his liking. And indeed, after viewing, assessing, sorting, rejecting, emailing, meeting up with several potential Matches, and even burning a bridge or two with the eligible ladies in Johnson City, by March he had shifted his sights to the damsels south.
In no time at all, Peter fancied the photo of a blonde Asheville beauty whose profile was as good as her looks. Quite lovely, she was obviously articulate and intelligent. And because he made his own sufficient living as an artist and craftsman, it was an added bonus that she was openly enthusiastic about the arts.
Peter emailed AVL-Au001 immediately, introducing himself as best he could: flirty, engaging, and smart, as he liked to think of himself. Sofia replied within a day. Her note was friendly, but disappointing. She’d just met someone online to whom she was quite attracted and was focusing her attention on that one man. Though he understood her position, Peter couldn’t completely let her go. He was inexplicably attracted to the woman on the computer screen.
“Perhaps you will put me in your list of top ten admirers, in case things happen to change. I once considered La vie est imprévisible, French meaning “Life is unpredictable,” as a tasteful tattoo. It’s the ONLY thing we can count on. Attend to your heart as I will to mine.”
Peter was encouraged when Sofia cheerfully acknowledged his request and agreed to put him on her personal Reserves list. She didn’t, however, respond when he tried to win her with a third overture:
Ah, Sofia, merci. You’re very good. And with a nice light touch. So, let me tell you one of my favorite funny stories…
He sent her a fourth note several days later:
Dear Sofia (I’ve never met a Sofia), I’m enjoying a cappuccino at The Acoustic Coffeehouse and noticed you’re online. I promise I’m not stalking but wanted to send a word I’ve just invented. An ever so clever inspiration as I watch the rainfall and play with designs. If you have a conversation with someone in a coffeehouse, would you call it a coffeesation?
And this flirtation, too, she ignored. Though he couldn’t seem to get her off his mind, Peter knew he shouldn’t waste his time either. He waited a couple of more days for a reply. Rien.
Ah, so few lovely women, and so many fewer who are lovely et intrigant.
Peter thought some of the match-seekers were pretty, but lacking intellectually. He didn’t even read the profiles of those who weren’t physically appealing to him, knowing no matter how funny, eloquent, or intelligent she may be, he just couldn’t like her if he didn’t like her looks.
With some indifference, Peter eventually contacted two women who had responded to his hello notes. Danielle, a physical therapist, and Caroline, a naturopath. Since the trip to Asheville would take an hour each way, he arranged to meet up in the afternoon with Danielle, and to get together with Caroline in the early evening. He didn’t know why—after all, he was doing this through Match—but having set up two dates for one day, he felt compelled not to let one know about the other. He deliberately made each of the women think he was making the journey to see her exclusively.
Saturday was sunny and very mild for March. Peter decided to give himself lots of travel time and make it a scenic road trip for himself. He wound through the mountains, driving the back roads to Asheville, and when he arrived in the city he parked at the public garage near the Civic Center. He then headed for the Fine Arts Theatre where he’d agreed to meet Danielle.
Peter slowed his gait when he noticed that Danielle stood impassively by the box office, staring across the street at nothing in particular. He had recognized her immediately from her Match photo, though he could tell that she hadn’t yet spotted him. She seemed slightly heavier than he imagined, and her head a bit too big for her shoulders. Already convinced that he wouldn’t be interested in a relationship with her, Peter had to decide quickly whether he preferred to be alone for the afternoon, do a hasty volte-face and just not show up to meet her, or whether he could hack spending a few hours at the movies with this stranger.
Peter chose to approach the woman and, with the ease of his practiced charm, he touched her elbow gently, half-whispered her name, then reached his hand forward. Danielle, barely startled, shook hands heartily and added a courteous nod.
Hmmph. Some gray in her hair that wasn’t visible in the online pictures. About an inch taller, too. Just too big overall. Oh, well, let’s hope her brain at least matches her size.
You, Too (short story excerpt)
by SUSAN COYLE
Mrs. Adele Barnhardt stood at the picture window. She held the wand of the vacuum cleaner straight up in her right hand and clutched a chair cushion under her left breast. She’d stopped her chores long enough to watch as Fluffy, her prized white Angora, traversed the front yard and deftly climbed a maple tree. Had a passerby glanced in the window, Adele could have been mistaken for Lady Liberty, lifting her torch for the masses yearning to breathe free. In truth, she was simply standing straight and proud at the sight of Fluffy.
“A champion,” Adele whispered, “through and through.” The vacuum canister whined at her side, but Adele adopted a reverential tone whenever she spoke of Fluffy.
The cat crouched along a branch that overhung the street and was soon lost in the foliage. It wasn’t easy to hide twelve pounds of show-quality feline, but the maple was in full leaf on this July afternoon. Adele was thankful the tree shielded her from the sight of those pestilential children who snapped their towels as they walked to the public swimming pool.
She turned her attention to the green seat cushion, which was tufted with white fur. In the evenings, Adele’s husband Robert acted as though the chair was his, but it was also Fluffy’s favorite piece of furniture, and Adele couldn’t bear to disturb her favorite fellow when he was sleeping. It was her afternoon custom to remove the evidence of Fluffy’s fiefdom and allow Robert the conceit that his home was his castle.
Satisfied with the state of the cushion, Adele replaced it and turned off the vacuum cleaner. She glanced outside again but couldn’t see her handsome guy, so she busied herself winding the cord. Then she walked to the pantry, eyeballed the rows of cans, and tried to decide on dinner. God only knows what Robert had eaten for lunch today.
Eight blocks away, Jacquetta Moody wrangled her voluminous white skirt into the car so it wouldn’t catch the door. She tried to breathe slowly as her daughter Brandy helped close the door, but she needed to get out of there. Jacquetta cranked open the window and stuck out a wispy head of prematurely white hair.
“Mama,” Brandy said, “I don’t know what I’d have done without you. Philip Lee is the devil himself.” She laughed. “I guess he’ll be home for supper, sure enough.”
“I just wish you could’ve had a better birthday party than this.” Jacquetta had been at Brandy’s twenty-first birthday party for five nerve-wracking hours, but her son-in-law had been a no-show. He’d supposedly gone out to pick up the cake and hadn’t come home. Jacquetta had brought ice cream, which two-year-old James had eaten to the exclusion of anything else. James had then refused a nap, stripped off all his clothes, and run screaming around the sparse lawn.
Jacquetta fidgeted with her bag and fished out a change purse. Thrusting a twenty-dollar bill at her daughter, she said, “Now, honey, you get yourself one of those kits. Go on, and you call me when you find out.” I bet he doesn’t even pick up the darn cake, she thought.
“Thanks for the party, Mama. And don’t you worry; there’s always room for one more.”
Jacquetta looked nervously at James, who was now hunkered over the sidewalk, extruding the contents of a caterpillar between his fat hands. Jacquetta felt more hair turn white and fall out. She pressed a packet of tissues into Brandy’s hand.
“For James. Now, you just call me after you take the test,” she said.
Jacquetta started the car and gave Brandy a jittery wave before the car began to jerk down the hill. She hunched over the steering wheel and held it like a lifebuoy. I bet Philip Lee didn’t change my car’s spark plugs like he promised. She grew increasingly flustered each time the car bucked.
Adele stood in the pantry with a tin of tuna fish and a box of macaroni. The can bore an expired date stamp, but it didn’t bulge. She peeked cautiously in the plastic window of the pasta box for flour moths. She then examined the stack of Kitty Gourmet cans.
At the third stop sign, Jacquetta decided the bucking was ridiculous and turned off the car’s engine. She got out, smoothed her skirt, glared at the Plymouth, and got back in. The parking brake was on. She released it, and the car eased down the street like silk.
Adele selected Seafood Platter, so it would match Robert’s dinner. See, I do not treat Fluffy better than I treat you.
Jacquetta had goosed the Plymouth up to thirty-five miles per hour just as she began to pass the Barnhardt house, where a branch of the maple tree hung ominously low. A huge white ball dropped out of the sky, landed on the hood of her car, and bounced onto the pavement. Jacquetta screamed and stood on the brakes. The car pitched to a standstill in the middle of the street. In the rearview mirror, she saw a ten-foot patch of rubber and an inert clump of fur.
Adele heard the screech of brakes and dropped the Seafood Platter. She ran to the front door and saw a woman in a blue Plymouth clutching her hair and mewling. A little further up the street lay Fluffy. Adele sprinted outside and knelt over her cherished cat. His white fur bore a single sad streak of motor oil from the filthy pavement. Adele heaved herself over his body and straddled him on all fours. She acted with instinctive protection even though she knew, with a puncture deep inside her heart, that it was too late.
Certain Ghosts (short story excerpt)
by ERIN HUIZEN
Ram lay in bed, inspecting his ceiling and the plaster stalactites forever about to drip, half-listening to Chauncey go on about their common interest.
“There are some good parts to having only one hand,” Chauncey said. Chauncey himself had one hand, which was why Ram’s wife had invited him over from her painters’ troop, figuring that Ram and this pink-cheeked kid with no more facial hair than a rose bush had a lot to talk about. But Ram didn’t feel much like talking about not having hands or arms or legs or teeth or nipples any other body part for that matter. He was sick to death of talking about it.
“For one,” Chauncey said, holding up his prosthetic hand, pointing its index finger, “you get, obviously, handicap parking.”
“You don’t say,” Ram said. He hated it when people said “obviously.” Made you wonder if they thought you were dumb, saying things are obvious after they’d already been said. Plus, he didn’t know you could get handicap parking for losing a hand. After all, you use your legs to walk to your parking spot. So, no, that wasn’t so obvious to him.
“Let me see that thing.” Ram nodded at Chauncey’s prosthetic.
Chauncey perked up and scooted closer to Ram’s bedside, holding his hand out for Ram to inspect. Ram ran his own remaining fingers along the palm, gently, in a way he wouldn’t touch another man’s hand if the hand were really that man’s hand. Its softness surprised him, like a succulent leaf. He’d never imagined that’s what one of those things was like, always figuring them to be stiff and rubbery like a mannequin’s.
“Some piece of work you got there.”
Chauncey beamed. “Took some getting used to, but now a lot of the time I forget it’s not my real hand, which says a lot. Till it gets itchy, then man does it itch.”
The mention of an itch sent Ram’s half-healed wounds burning afresh, clawing up and down his arms and legs and torso. He clenched his bedspread, one side of the fabric bunched in his hand, the other smooth where only a ghost haunted the cleft and bruise-purple stump where his hand used to be.
“And for two, you wouldn’t have thought it, but it really gets you in with the ladies.”
Ram grunted. Couldn’t this kid see he was old as dirt and had been married his whole life? “Don’t know how my wife would feel about that,” he said. “Probably get jealous and hide it in the laundry hamper.”
Chauncey laughed, rubbed his hand down the top of his thigh and stood up.
“You sure do have a lot of plants,” Chauncey said. “How can you keep track of all them? It’s like a jungle in here.”
“Just something I like to do,” Ram said.
“Never can get mine to live longer than two weeks.”
“That, young man, is an offense that should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” Ram ran his hand along his throat, pretending to slice it off.
Chauncey laughed again, but stopped upon noticing Ram’s stony eyes.
“What are they?” Chauncey said.
“Which ones? There are about a three hundred thousand different kinds in here.”
Indeed, every plant Ram owned now filled the shelves, nightstands, and window sills of his bedroom, brought in there after the accident so he could keep an eye on them. And keep an eye on his wife seeing as she was the overwatering type and not to mention she’d sing to his plants if he didn’t stop her. It wasn’t fair to make them sit and listen to someone that hadn’t been blessed with one ounce of musical talent, since it wasn’t like they could sprout legs and escape.
Chauncey stopped before a long, thin-leafed plant and took a strand of it in his hand.
“Is that your real hand or your other hand?”
“Then get it off of my poor plant!”
Chauncey apologized again and sat down. Ram could see he startled the kid and felt a little bad for him but for the fact he was a dip and a plant-killer. He reminded Ram of his son, same tree-trunk legs, boulder chest, chicken brain. Big boy like his son, too. Too big, according to his wife who always was complaining how she shouldn’t have ever let a man as big as Ram give her a baby, she was too tiny and it left her whole body permanently traumatized and stretched out beyond hope. Ram wondered what she was hoping for with her body in the first place. A little slack isn’t such a bad thing, he’d tell her, you don’t want to be strung up so tight that the littlest gust of wind is going to make you snap.
His son also was a plant-killer, but surely much worse than Chauncey, whom he pegged as the kind who see a plant they know nothing about other than they think it’s pretty, then forget about it until they have to throw the thing away.
No, his son was different.
His son murdered hundreds, maybe thousands of plants. He’d truck bed loads of plants home and spend days arranging them all in neat rows on his lawn and then, after all that time and money, he’d abandon them, wouldn’t water them, never even gave them a chance. Something about those plants standing side by side, withered and dead in their pots, disturbed something deep in Ram, like a photo you see of bodies stacked at Auschwitz. Because you know that a man’s own two hands had to have arranged them like that to be so neat and organized.
Ram would wait a few weeks before driving over and he’d walk up and down the rows, turning each dead plant in his hand, considering it, before placing it with the others in his wheelbarrow and hauling them all away until the next time. It went on for years like that till his son got sent to the penitentiary on account of that poor girl he raped.
“Chlorophytum comosum,” Ram said. “That one you had there was a spider plant.”
“Looks like a crazy wig.”
“What’s this one?” Chauncey hovered over a cactus with red flowers like you’d see tucked behind the ear of a woman dancing on a cruise ship.
“Euphorbia milii. Crown of thorns. Wife hates that one, probably ’cause you can never water it. And, it’ll irritate your skin if you touch it, so don’t touch it.”
“I won’t, I won’t.” Chauncey raised his hands in the air. “Your wife sure is a good lady. Reminds me of my mom. You have any? Kids, or grandkids?”
“Me neither. Not that I know of, at least.”