Thursday, March 18, 2010

Character sketch: Michael Reed

Michael Reed is the hero of The Devil You Don't Know. It's not that he wants to be a hero, it's just that he was chosen, somehow, for the job.

Or, at least that's how it seems each time he finds himself doing something that runs counter to his beliefs and his past actions. He is a man possessed. And he has no idea why.

Michael is a complex character. He's very much me -- and yet he's not. If you get what I mean. I took my personality and gave it to Michael, but I left out some of the good parts. At least, I hope I did. He's caustic, sarcastic, funny, witty and altogether angry at the world.

So am I. Most of the time, anyway.

I like Michael and had fun writing him. My wife, while admitting there's a lot of me in him, didn't always like him. And that's fine with me. He's supposed to be a burned-out journalist with a horrific past that haunts him day and night. He's a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made something of himself. He defies the odds on a regular basis, in other words.

He's also a good husband, a great father and loyal to a fault.

Of course, he also has a tendency to sabotage himself on a fairly regular basis (guilty as charged, your honor!).

Michael Reed is the kind of guy I would want on my side in a crisis. And boy, does he find himself in a crisis. He spends the entire novel pushing hard for the truth, at a terrific cost to himself, his career and his family. Often, he finds himself doing things in the book and he has no idea why he's doing them.

I realize as I write this that I am not doing his character justice. He's deep and nuanced and, ultimately, he's a good man. The fact that he feels he doesn't deserve anything good in life, in my mind, makes him all the more sympathetic. I can relate, in other words.

The guy also gets most of the good lines in the book.

There are so many scenes featuring Michael to choose from that I really agonized over which one to use. Should I show how good a husband and father he is? Should I show how he relapses and nearly destroys himself in the process? How about when he quits his job in a fit of anger and shame? Or when he finally steps up and becomes the hero he always was, even if he didn't know it?

In the end, I chose the scene where he wakes up after his relapse in a strange house -- having no idea how he got there. It's the scene where he finally meets Miriam Crane, the crazy woman who had called him in the newsroom some weeks earlier, begging him to meet her son.



The world swam into focus. Pale light streamed through a curtained window and Michael’s first thought was that he was back in college. God knows he’d awakened in many a strange place back in the day. His head throbbed and his swollen tongue felt parched. He could have guzzled a gallon of water and still been thirsty.

Saliva pooled in his mouth; he had to throw up. Now. He leaned over and vomited loudly onto a black-and-white throw rug. It looked homemade, he thought idly as he retched.

“Honey?” he croaked when he finished, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and rolling back onto the bed. A carved crucifix hung on the blue wall above his head, a little wooden Jesus staked to its appendages.

Where in the hell am I?

The pounding in his head intensified. He swallowed and tasted vomit, cigarettes and booze, and he retched again although, mercifully, nothing came up.

Slowly it dawned on him. He'd gotten drunk. Black guilt swept over him. Frantically, he took stock of his situation. It wasn't good, he realized. He needed to call his wife pronto, try to explain things. And then (God, he hoped) he could go home, where he would hug his precious kids and then crawl—on his knees if he had to—back to that motherfucker Blake and his newspaper. Hell, he'd even write his novel, call his AA sponsor, catch some meetings.

He’d get his life back; his blessedly boring, abstemious life.

Please God, make it so.

He glanced at his wristwatch. It was nearly noon. Shit. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Carefully. He was dressed, right down to his ancient Doc Marten boots. The foot of the little twin bed was smeared with mud and water. Vomit was pooled on the nice homemade rug. The room itself, however, smelled clean, soapy, and well maintained.

Oh God, where am I?

He heard footsteps hurrying down a hallway outside the bedroom, coming closer. The door opened and the most beautiful face he’d ever seen looked in on him. It was a woman, perhaps his age, maybe younger. She looked concerned, although her nose wrinkled in disgust at the odor of vomit. Michael silently wished he could disappear.

“Mr. Reed? How are you feeling?” she asked. When she entered the room, Michael saw she was wearing a gray sweater and a charcoal skirt that reached primly to her knees. She reminded him of a teacher he’d had in fourth grade. His first crush, as he recalled.

“A little groggy.” He was ashamed of himself, more ashamed than he had ever felt in his life. “God, I'm so sorry about the mess. I got sick to my stomach.”

She smiled. “It’s no wonder, with all that alcohol you consumed. I didn’t know you were a drinker, Mr. Reed.”

“I’m not,” he said. “I mean, I guess I am, but not really. I shouldn’t, you know? I’m a recovering alcoholic. Or, at least I was …” He fell silent. What more was there to say?

She looked at him, hands on her hips.

“Well, our Lord works in mysterious ways,” she said, still smiling. She had beautiful almond-shaped blue-gray eyes. She also seemed content to let him sit on the edge of the bed for as long as he needed.

Although his brain was still fogged up, Michael was sure he knew this woman. Perhaps from Alcoholics Anonymous? An old lover from his long ago past? He’d awakened in strange houses before, with strange women. But never quite like this.

Did I sleep with her?

“Did I …” He stopped himself. “How did I get here? I don't remember much about last night.”

She smiled and nodded, gathering up the vomit-covered rug. “You called me, Mr. Reed. Remember? You begged me to come save you, just like you were supposed to.” She smiled again and he thought she looked like an angel.

Am I dead?

“Do I know you, ma’am?” he asked. She looked at him closely, that strange comforting smile still on her sweet face.

“We've talked before, Mr. Reed.”

It came to him. He recognized her voice from the phone call he took in the newsroom that Saturday. The day his life started going to hell.

Miriam Crane!

“Look, I really need to get home.” He stood up, groaned and sat back down.

“Not yet, apparently,” she said. “You are certainly free to go, Mr. Reed. I ask only that you listen to my story first.”

IN REAL LIFE: I entertained the idea of doing a chacter sketch on the novel's villian (he's a dandy, trust me), but ultimately opted out because I think this has played itself out. I've noticed my comments and page visits have taken a tremendous hit since I started these character sketches, so I figure I ought to get back to blogging about me, my life and my writing and leave the characters on the page. But they have helped me out tremendously. Believe it or not, I've learned a lot just by writing these character sketches. And I've been able to add some of what I've learned into the revisions. So all in all, it hasn't been a complete waste of time.

I got very little done today, revision-wise, although I did have a nice long lunch with the real-life model for Jeff Greenberg, so that was interesting! I won't be blogging again until Sunday, since I'm going back to play reporter for a few days. After that, I promise things will get back to normal around here again.

Have a great weekend.

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed the character sketches Terry and they've given me a great insight into a fiction writer's mindset. One I don't think I'd have the patience for. I'd like to see more character sketches, but do what you need to do.