What if I told you this:
When my parents married in 1958, my father was French. He signed his name “Paien” and gave my mother a set of French conversation records she can still quote from today: “Je m’appelle Jean LeCarpentier mais je ne suis pas carpentier, ha ha ha.” One Sunday they drove from the small town in Bladen County where my dad served as a Methodist pastor to Pinehurst to eat at an upscale French restaurant. It was so expensive all they could afford was the green beans, les haricots verts. Soon thereafter my father became an Eskimo.
My father’s name is Carl. He grew up a Methodist preacher’s kid. As far as we know his only map-able genes are Scots-Irish and English. His selection of Eskimo heritage did make a kind of sense, because he was born in Nome, Alaska, where his parents were missionaries to a mining community. They moved from Alaska when he was two, first to the Seattle area and then to North Carolina. My dad was eight when his family moved to North Carolina, where his father pastored various churches in Swan Quarter, Elizabethtown, Pittsboro, Burlington. To protest the move my dad refused ever to develop a southern accent.
By the time I was born in 1963 my father had left the ministry, moved the family to Raleigh, and become Danish. He hung a large red and white Danish flag above his desk in our living room. When my third grade teacher asked us to tell our heritage, she must have been surprised when I, with my brown eyes and un-Viking-like dark hair, claimed Danish ancestry.
When I was twelve, my father became Greek. He listened to balalaika music and learned Greek folk dances. He was the first person in Raleigh to discover feta cheese and kalamata olives. He named himself “Karlos,” which he spelled with Greek letters. He took a trip to Greece, bringing me back drachmas I could bend with my teeth and the palm-sized casing of some sea creature, bleached white by the sun and still smelling of the Aegean.
My dad was Greek for a long time--through a divorce, his children leaving home, his mother dying. All the letters he wrote me in college were signed "Karlos," written in Greek letters.
Now my father is Scandinavian.
If I told you all this (some of which is true) you would say, “your father is such a character!”
We’ve all known people about whom we’ve said “he (or she) is such a character.” Often we follow this statement by shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, or perhaps adding a “bless his heart.” What is it about these folks that makes them so interesting and unforgettable? How can we make our fictional characters just as compelling, without sacrificing credibility or resorting to stereotype? Those are the questions we’ll explore in the “Such A Character” workshop I'll be teaching for the Great Smokies Writing Program on Tuesday nights this spring. The 10-week course begins February 18, 2014 and you can register for it here: http://agc.unca.edu/great-smokies-writing-program