Authors find characters in different ways. In my new novel, What Happens to Us, the leading man comes directly from real life. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, Dante is like an alcoholic drink, in more ways than one. He’s two parts magician, two parts romantic, and two parts wounded bird, and two parts felon.
Regarding the felon part, I must confess that I know whereof I speak. I’m a professional magician, as you know from my previous posts, and over the past four years, I’ve developed a friendship with a magic fan of mine named, let’s say, Bart. A couple years ago, Bart and his mother started eating dinner at the restaurant in Culver City, California, where I was doing walkaround closeup magic once a week. Bart was something of a character, dressed somewhat carelessly, always in t-shirts and jeans, and tipping the scales at over 300 pounds. He drove a 30-year-old Cadillac and had a pony tail hanging down to the middle of his back.
Bart’s saving grace, however, was that he was obviously brilliant. He had earned a couple million in the go-go stock market of the late ’90s, and then lost much of it in the years since. He had also made his living as a professional poker player. I looked him up on the Internet and discovered that he had won some big money at poker tournaments.
Bart was fascinated by my cardplay. He revered my sleights in a way that charmed me. He began taking me out to dinner. The restaurants weren’t just greasy spoons,either, but white-tablecloth establishments. We chatted about everything and anything, getting to know each other better. He helped me book gigs. He was my biggest cheerleader. The third time he took me out, though, he came out with a strange announcement.
“I may have to go away to prison for a few months,” he said calmly, eyes averted.
I looked at him blankly. Prison? In my embarrassed way, I asked him what the deal was. Turned out that about five years ago, he had started filing bankruptcies in Los Angeles court for a lawyer in Wichita. He didn’t really ask many questions about them, just filed them–hundreds of them. It would have been no problem for anyone except that the people whom he was filing for didn’t exist. He claimed he didn’t know he was committing fraud, that the lawyer was the perpetrator.
While waiting for his trial, Bart did me a huge favor. My tenth anniversary of meeting my girlfriend was coming up, and I wanted to do something special. I took her to Vegas, and by that time, Bart was living there. He had sold his house to pay his legal bills and had bought a trailer home off of Tropicana Boulevard.
On the day Claire and I arrived in Vegas, Bart met us in the lobby of the Rio. We had reserved a room for $175 for three nights, which was a pretty good deal. But Bart felt he could do me one better.
“You stay here,” Bart told me. “I’m going up to the check-in desk an act like Claire’s boyfriend.”
“Okay,” I said.
I watched from a distance. They talked to the counter clerk for about ten minutes, then walked back towards me. Claire’s face was filled with thinly disguised glee.
“I got you a high-roller suite,” Bart said. “This room normally goes for $900 a night.”
“How much is it going to cost me?” I asked.
I was dumbfounded. That was clearly the celebration I needed to ensure ten more years of bliss with Claire. It turned out to be a 2-room suite on the 17th floor. It had the most heavenly king-size bed with 180 degrees of windows. It had three televisions, including one that you could watch in the sauna. There were two bathrooms, one measuring about 500 square feet. I still didn’t understand how Bart had done it, though, so when we were alone, I asked Claire.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “He was talking, and then they were giving us things.”
Later, I broke down and asked Bart exactly what he had done.
“They had lost your reservation,” Bart said. “We were lucky about that. That means they owed us something. So I started talking, just asking for things, and it turned out that they had this room available. The thing is, you just have to keep your cool, not get mad, and just keep talking and asking for things. If they can, they’ll be happy to do things for you.”
A month later, we reported our experience at the family party to my Uncle Gary, who is a retired parole officer. Gary was suspicious, certain that Bart was “grooming us.”
“He’s nice to you over a period of time, and one day, he asks you to do something risky,” Gary said. “And bam! You’re scammed!”
I tried to explain. Over the past couple years, I had met his childhood friends, who all seemed straight and decent. I knew his mother, who was a retired schoolteacher. He was always doing decent things for me, like helping me book airline tickets cheap.
But the more I explained, the hotter under the collar Gary became about it. He started babbling on until he was no longer making sense. He was certain that Bart was a con man. And I wasn’t sure either way.
Soon, Bart was tried in Wichita and found guilty. While the lawyer was sentenced to six years, Bart only got 18 months in Lompoc, which is a minimum-security prison. His friends rallied around and gave him a going-away party, and I performed magic. While he was in Lompoc, I was on his email list, corresponding with my prison pen pal. It was truly strange to be corresponding with a con in prison.
Recently Bart got out and moved to Vegas, getting work as a blackjack dealer in a big casino. It’s strange to think that the casinos let an ex-con handle their money, but hey, that’s Vegas for ya.
Every now and then, the question gnaws at me: What was Bart’s downfall?
One day, I wrote it up, and it eventually found its way into my novel:
What Cat studied more than anything else was not Dante’s curriculum, but Dante himself. He didn’t accept conventional wisdom, always seemed to be reinventing the world for himself. In time, she would discover that he had an intense dislike for limitations. The world said you had to get a regular job. He didn’t get a regular job and nothing terrible happened. The world said you couldn’t be happy without your own DNA staring back at you, but he didn’t get anybody pregnant and nothing terrible happened. The world said you had to get to bed by eleven and up by six. He often stayed awake till three and arose at noon and nothing terrible happened.
When presented with a magic trick in a book, he immediately mused how he might change it, deface it, surgically enhance it. When he encountered a girl in a bar who was in trouble, he found a way to rescue her. Some people, he noticed, solved problems by trying to follow instructions, clinging to a step-by-step obeisance. Dante instead fixed his mind on the end point and worked his way back from there, no matter if the road led through social conventions, warnings from authorities, taboos. He was always exploring taboos, if only to see if they had any basis.
Dante had been told since he was young that he was special. It was his father who had told him that he could accomplish anything, that he was the smartest kid not just in his elementary school, but in the state.
“Your future is wide open,” he had told him.
That was why he was so astounded every time he failed.
Maybe I was little easy on Bart in fiction. In real life, he always thinks he’s smarter than everyone in the room–which is often true–and therefore, feels justified in cutting corners. He’s so smart that he doesn’t need to follow convention or even the law. He knows that his intentions are pure, and that’s enough for him.
And that was his crucial mistake.