One ghastly feature of modern romantic fiction is how boring the heroes are. It’s all very well to hire a male model or body-builder, rip his shirt, and pose him, sword in hand, as Rock or Knute or Prince Knuckle of Ramstein for the cover of the book. But what happens when you have to put him in a conversation? Not just with the heroine, with anybody. “Erg, awk, aggghhhh!” he said.
This past week I’ve had reason to think about one of my biggest assets as a creator of characters, romantic and not–I have lots of brothers. I have four, to be exact, all of them younger than I am, so I got to watch them develop into personalities. I have only one sister, and she’s ten years younger. We didn’t interact much. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male characters are more varied and interesting than my female ones. This is particularly helpful when I’m writing romances, but it comes in handy elsewhere too.
For the purposes of narrative simplicity, I’m going to call the boys Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog, with Able the eldest and Dog the youngest. They are now all retired, some several times, and among them have had six marriages and twelve children. Three of my brothers are pilots, one a professional, and the same three were sky-divers before sanity prevailed.
We were raised as Catholics, but they have all departed from the bosom of Mother Church with only brother Baker, after a brief deviation into Hinduism, returning to Christianity. Most are now amiable agnostics. Among them, they have worked at a wide variety of jobs ranging from mink farmer to postman to canner of green beans to researcher into conversion of bio-mass to fuel. Three are combat veterans and one a war protester, and, fortunately, all four have senses of humor that permit them to be in the same room for long periods of time, playing their guitars (and banjo and cello) and singing silly songs with each other.
My brothers are at least as verbose as I am. In fact, Able and I amused ourselves while we washed dishes for all eight family members by reciting narrative poetry at each other, alternating the verses–“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves,” etc. Able (between mink farming, lawyering, and selling real estate in Mexico) has written two thrillers, Baker is both an actor and a playwright, and Dog has done three novels and a film script. Charlie, for reasons that will be clear, should write his memoirs and can if he will just sit down and do it.
Ten days ago I had a call from my sister in law to say that my youngest brother Dog had suffered a stroke. It was a minor one, fortunately, but it affected his peripheral vision. It also caused an interruption between hand and eye that makes it hard for him to work the computer or drive a car. I talked to him the next morning and was relieved to know that his wit and enthusiasm are intact. He has since dived into physical therapy. Let’s hope it works.
That woke me up. I began to think about Dog and the others and wish I could see them face to face. Then last week I got a phone call at eight in the morning from brother Baker. “Turn on the tv,” he said. “Charlie’s on the morning news.”
He was indeed.
Charlie, who lives in Miami Beach, is a pilot, the professional one. He retired from the Air Force as a lt. colonel and flew for American Airline for some years, mostly in the Caribbean. When he retired from AA, he ferried Russian millionaires around the globe for a while. He knows I’m a geography buff, so he called me with a stumper one winter morning. “Bet you can’t guess where I am.” “Where?” “Sharm el Sheik.” “Ha,” I said. “Sinai. Red Sea. Right?” He was terribly disappointed, but we had a nice chat about the weather. He was basking on the beach.
Charlie has his own small plane, but he wanted to fly regularly and that can be expensive, so he got himself a part time job flying a tow plane along Miami Beach. The planes the company uses were built in the 1950s for forward air control, to use as spotters. High wings, single engine, open cockpit. You get the picture.
Now visualize Charlie on a peaceful weekday morning, flying along the beach with his banner trailing an advertisement for snake oil. All of a sudden, with no warning, the engine quit. He cut the banner away and tried to start the engine. No dice. As he told the tv commentator later, “I said to myself, ‘I may have five seconds to live.'” His face quirked in a typical Charlie grin. “‘We’ll know in a minute.'” Both of them cracked up on the air.
In fact, as he told me later, he barely had time to verify that he wasn’t going to land on top of a swimmer before the plane hit the water at 45 miles an hour–800 yards off Miami Beach in about twenty feet of water. The wings held the plane on the surface for a few moments, then sea water swept into the cockpit. He took a deep breath, unhooked his seat restraint, and swam up, free of the wreckage. He could see light. He swam toward it, inflating his life jacket. When he reached the surface, a jet-skier whooshed over to him and pulled him aboard. The entire event lasted less than fifteen minutes.
Well, there you are. A woman who has four brothers shouldn’t have any difficulty crating male characters who are as nutty and interesting as real people should be. My problem is that I don’t have any models of male villainy. SPOILER. My murderers tend to be women.