When I was young, I’d read Dickens or Faulkner (Yeah. Not that young) and internally scoff at the dynamic characters that sometimes touched periphery, or walked into the story unannounced. They were bold, striking, larger-than-life, and I told myself they were characterizations, caricatures, expanded personalities.
Then I started living life in the real world (circa 2002) and found, oddly, those people are everywhere. It’s not that they were dynamic and expulsive and bold, or they commanded your attention, but the writerdemanded the reader see the character as such. They’re everyone you meet, if you know them well enough–or sometimes even if you don’t.
So I see character tropes repeated, Jungian archetypes that dance with only slight modifications to their characters. (Something Karen, a bogus channeler, said to me on my trip back from Buffalo. “Archetypes come in many shades. There are the shadow Knights, there are the light Knights, depending on your level of realization.” She wasn’t referring to Jungian, but nonetheless, they coincide like tarot cards to a deck of 52.) Yet I sit at my desk, or drive in my van, and while I’m out on the town I see fifty variations of the same Vagabond, twelve variations on the Businessman On Lunch, and even that Caustic Passive-Aggressive Nasty Boss who dedicates his life to avoiding work. Yep.
I was blessed with an incredibly dynamic family (growing up it wasn’t a blessing, but it shaped my love for characterization). My father and mother are at opposite extremes. My two brothers are at opposite extremes to my parents. I am somewhere in the middle, fulfilling a fifth, somewhat unexpected extreme. Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeve, except my father. Everyone finds way to interact with each other, except for my younger brother. Everyone makes peace with themselves, except for my mother. Etc.
So I have a great base.
The reason for the title is my profile of an incredibly dynamic character at my work.
Tim’s one of five maintenance/janitors. He’s six foot four tall with a farmer’s build–and by that I mean a beer gut and broad shoulders. Aging white hair–he’s got to be in his fifties. He has sun-caked skin that isn’t so much tan but leathered, stark, feral eyes that seem a little recessed in his head but not abnormally so. His teeth are not so much crooked but well-used so when he smiles, his face looks like a pumpkin. His hands are twice the size of mine, and he wears blue jeans and holey t-shirts. He’s a beast to look at, intimidating as hell to see walking down the hall. He always smells like motor oil and mustard.
He has spent his life making amends for something. I don’t know what. He’s spent the second half of his life recovering from something. I don’t know what. Perhaps drug use. Perhaps a rough childhood. He’s got a thin country accent that grows thick when he impersonates someone, and he’s proud of being a country hick. Not in a hickish way, but in a self-respecting way. “Loudest damn redneck you’ll ever see–or hear!” he said when we first met. Some raucous, bellowing laugh accompanied the hear which denoted years of cigarette ingestion and a past of partying.
You look him in the eye for more than three seconds, he’s got a story about killin’ rats over the weekend or the fence-posts he pulled or the power line he propped up by the live wire. He’d tell you about his Chevelle and siphoning gas in the 70’s, how he’d race down the main street in town while dodging college students. About his love for Hogan’s Heroes. He’d talk about tearing down his friend’s barn for two kegs of beer they finished in one night, and the resulting Barn Nail (they are, apparently larger than regular nails) in his heel the next day because of it.
And the thing that gets me the most is his openness. He’s a fun-loving kitten. He seems almost desperate to share in his zest for life, in his love. He radiates it, in a terrible, feral, violent, life-affirming way.
Yet the one thing I will always remember him for, and the thing I noticed first about him, is his haunting, nearly tuneless humming while he works. Like a moan two octaves lower than it should be, rising and lowering like some mournful spirit. “Hey Chris!” he’d say, then without skipping a beat, growl into this hum. Same song every time, for two years. And when he’s alone–or he thinks he is–and when he’s cleaning bathrooms, he bursts out his hum with such echoing gusto it resonates about him, through him. It saturates him while he works.
I don’t know why he does it, but I know after this place is closed down and deserted, kids sneaking in will most likely hear that haunting sound and think the worst. I know it. I feel it.
And, beyond that, nobody sees him that way. He’s just the annoying janitor who ribs and jibes good-naturedly when your day’s going to shit and you want nothing more than for him to dump your trash and, “moooove on” (his words).
There. There’s a character. Tomorrow I might do the Home Delivery manager. If nothing else, by the end of two weeks, I’d have a full cast of characters I can place in any situation, any role, any place.
People have so much power, sometimes it’s scary.