Where Do Fictional Characters Come From?
by Lesley Sudders
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
— “Nature Boy” by eden ahbez
I recently stumbled on my old journals, out of sight for years in a storage box. In my early days of living in New York, I was a prolific journaler. I knew few people and kept busy exploring the City. On my travels, I noticed compelling individuals or groups that I described in the aforementioned journals. That can be a full-time job!
As a dabbler in fiction for as long as I can recall, I thought people and situations I observed would make their way into my stories. And sometimes they have. Fiction is an expression of the author’s life experiences (and those experiences include research into times long past or places far from home). I jotted away.
My first job in New York City was a temp assignment at a small publishing house. Friendly people worked there and invited me now and then to join them and their friends for happy hour at a nearby bar. One evening on my way to join them, I walked through a wooden barricade surrounding a large building site. It was still daylight.
One of those compelling individuals was standing guard inside the barricade, protecting just the wall, and wearing a Viking get-up. To turn on my heel and walk the other way was tempting, but I didn’t. I passed him without incident. He didn’t seem to register my presence, or that of anyone else who strolled by.
When I reached the watering hole, I told my new friends about this strange sight. “Oh, that’s eden ahbez. You know, the guy who wrote the song “Nature Boy” back in the 1940s,” someone said. “Not his real name, and he doesn’t capitalize the pseudonym.”
I remembered this song. It’s beautiful. Nat King Cole’s recording of it was a big hit. Others have recorded it as well. Its eerie, haunting melody and words have remained in my head.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. I ordered and joined the conversation.
As I walked home later, I hummed that song. Over that weekend I went to the magnificent New York Public Library, the one with the lion sentries, and looked up Mr. ahbez, the songwriter. A few newspaper accounts revealed that he had given the song to Nat King Cole and disappeared. Cole performed it to appreciative audiences and wanted to record it. This was delayed until Mr. ahbez was located, living under the Hollywood sign. He gave his permission.
I’d learned something. Now what?
These many years later, a version of this unusual person has not made its way into anything I’ve written – until now. A character this vivid might provide some backdrop for another story; it all depends. Perhaps he deserves to be just a memory, nearly as haunting as his song.
In the vast storehouse of Internet information, I recently read more about him. Although born in Brooklyn, he spent much of his life in California. He wrote other songs, but apparently never cared about financial gain. He embraced closeness to nature and lived with his wife and child “off the land” in Northern California. Their way of life would have been described years later as the hippie lifestyle. They were ahead of the times.
In view of that, I came to doubt my long-held belief about the Viking/songwriter. Despite his New York roots, eden ahbez was probably not the man I had seen all those years ago, although both men shared height and long reddish-blonde hair. I have no idea why someone told me he was the composer. Putting me on? Maybe. An honest mistake, I think. The Viking guy is in my memory as well, whoever he was.
A few years later, still in New York, I met through my husband a couple who were hard to forget. The man was a vile person beneath a charming exterior, the woman beautiful but deceitful. He was not young then, and I assume is now long gone. They were easy to characterize and they appear in a modified form in my first mystery novel, and two sequels written by my husband and writing collaborator. I hope I captured some essential truth about them.
I’m now working on something where the protagonist seems to have arrived in my brain fully formed and ready to act, bearing little or no resemblance to a real person of my experience. The more one uses one’s brain – the more one reads, observes, or listens – the more likely these fictional images will pop up. Or do all those images come from something beyond our understanding? So much more to consider.
A Viking, huh. I tucked away that journal and smiled.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.