Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Character sketch: Zachary Fine

Before we get started on Jewish attorney Zachary Fine, please note that I wrote two character sketches today -- this one and the one for Gary K. that appears directly beneath it. Please read Gary first.

Back? Okay.

Writing Zachary Fine's character was, for me, the hardest part of the entire project. Nothing else was even close, even though I gave Michael Reed quite a bit of my own personality and some of my childhood history.

Ah, but Zachary Fine is me. No doubt about it. No, I look nothing like him (he's short, balding and has a close-cropped beard). He's also older than I am. But I somehow managed, quite by accident I think, to give him my innermost feelings, fears and insecurities. Zachary spends much of the novel trying to kill himself, accidentally and on purpose. Mostly with booze and drugs. While I've never tried to kill myself on purpose, let's just say I have some personal knowledge of that kind of a mindset and we'll leave it at that. Okay?

I'll be honest here. I cried like a fucking baby when I wrote many of Zachary's scenes. They actually hurt me to write. No, I've never lost a spouse. And no, I've never purposefully swallowed a whole bottle of painkillers. But the feelings he feels, the depression he lives with daily, hit home with me. Painfully so, at times.

On those days when I wrote Zachary, my wife would find me depressed and exhausted for the entire evening. My family knew to avoid me. This is a deep novel, and writing it wore me out, but his scenes were the hardest. See, I gave Zachary much of my childhood (Michael got the rest. Lucky him). Zachary was bullied. Picked on. Hated, even. And he never really understood why. He wet the bed as a child, as I did. When I wrote a scene where Zachary, as a middle school student, was treated cruelly by a school librarian because he reeked of urine, know that I was feeling that scene the entire time I was writing it. Feeling it and crying. Why? Because it happened to me.

Zachary Fine's character was my Job. I punished him repeatedly and cruelly throughout the novel. And I'll be honest with you -- I meant to kill him off. I guess it was my way of finally killing off my own miserable childhood, of putting it behind me once and for all.

But in the end, he wouldn't cooperate. I'm loathe to reveal too much of the book, but I will tell you that Zachary literally refused to die. He came damned close. Several times, in fact. But the guy just wouldn't give up.

Like me, it turns out.

And so I rewarded him. With the greatest gift I could think of.


I really had a hard time picking a scene for Zachary's character sketch. Believe it or not, this one hurts me the least, since it's pure fiction. But it's a moment early in the novel, where we learn that wise-cracking, uber-intelligent Zachary Fine is a man who hurts. And for the first time, the reader learns why. It's a scene of looking back, at the defining moments of his adult life, a life spent in the company of a beautiful and kind wife whom he never felt worthy of having. It's a moment of loss.

I'd tell you to enjoy it, but it wouldn't be appropriate.


Attorney Zachary Fine kicked off his tasseled loafers and sank into his sofa, exhausted. It was Saturday and he’d missed temple again. A stack of folders and three yellow legal pads were strewn about the coffee table, homework for his latest case.

He ran his hands through his dyed black hair and sighed. He was fifty-four years old and lonelier than he’d ever been. And that was saying something. He longed for company, female company if given a choice. But he’d settle for anyone right now.

He glanced down at the coffee table, where a vial of painkillers sat next to his coffee mug. He sighed again and reached for them, washing down five with a gulp of cold coffee.

If he had any balls, he’d swallow the whole fucking vial and end it. Finally.

Unfortunately, he’d been blessed with brains, not balls.

He got up and shuffled to his desk. He slid open the lower right drawer and reached for a big brown photo album. Carrying it back to the sofa, he gently opened it and started from the first page, like he always did when he wanted to torture himself.

There was Sarah in her high school senior picture, tiny and dark haired. So beautiful and full of life.

There was Sarah as a college girl, already dating Zachary and smiling into the camera like the Mona Lisa, a beret cocked jauntily on her head. That had been in St. Martin on vacation, and she was tanned and vibrant.

There was Zachary and Sarah at his graduation from law school, dressed to the nines and ready for life. A life together.

There was Sarah in his favorite photo, on their wedding day. She was a gorgeous bride, looking like a princess standing next to her poor little frog, who beamed as though he couldn’t believe his luck.

There was Sarah on their twentieth wedding anniversary, grinning as she opened the present Zachary had given her that morning—a large diamond ring with smaller stones set around its face. She had loved that ring and steadfastly refused to take it off.

There was Sarah’s baby blue BMW, its windshield starred where her face, her beautiful well-loved face, had slammed into it when the drunk swerved and hit her head-on as she returned from the Kroger store with milk and doughnuts that rainy Sunday morning.

And there was Sarah’s gravestone: Sarah Michelle Fine. 1956-2002. Loved beyond belief.

After that, the photo album is empty.

Just like his life.

IN REAL LIFE: Please don't forget to read the character sketch of Gary K. directly below this one. It's new today, too. And it will likely cheer you up after reading about poor Zachary. You'll also notice that I actually got some revision work done today.

COMING TOMORROW: Miriam and Jordan Crane. Miriam, as you might've already deduced, is a fallen Catholic nun who had a child out of wedlock sixteen years ago and is convinced the boy is the Messiah, sent by God to save the world. She claims, of course, to have been a virgin when she was impregnated. Sound familiar? Jordan Crane is the 16-year-old son, an enigma whose point of view is never shared in the book. By design, I might add. I think you'll understand why tomorrow.


  1. Wow, that character had to be tough to get through. To me all these characters are adding color to your novel and Zachary adds a dose of black, which I think is a good thing. A yin to Gary K.'s yang. I know writing his scenes had to be depressing for you, but was it cathartic as well?

  2. Marty: Yes, it was. In fact, writing the entire novel was cathartic. So much so, that I'm afraid I'll never again approach that kind of depth in my fiction writing.