Friday, June 15, 2012

Mattie Bigham

I’ve created hundreds of characters over the years. Some were heroes in every sense of the word. Some were anti-heroes (my favorite kind!), who reluctantly took on something they never thought they would. Some started on a journey for which they’d never be the same. They’ve been male, female, children, husbands, wives, editors, writers, police officers, news reporters, pilots and more. Some have been ill-tempered. Some have been misguided. Some have been sunshiny and inspiring.

But none have been like Matthew Bigham.

Mattie, as I like to call him and as he hates to be called, has been with me for awhile. It’s hard to describe the process of creating a character. Some come instantly and fit right into a story. Others take time to mold, mostly in my subconscious and mostly from strange longings and scars of my own past. Mattie had an identity long before he had a face…or a body. He was kind of a culmination of suffering, a kind soul whom life had beaten to a bloody pulp. When I first met Mattie in my mind, he wasn’t overweight or bullied. He was just lost. But then I had to find out why he was lost. And soon a mental picture of him began to form in my mind. I saw his eyes first. They were wide, staring, almost childlike in innocence and scared with every blink. Then I knew he ate too much. He ate every time he was scared or frustrated. I knew this because I did it too.

Although I’ve never been obese, I have struggled for many years with comforting myself with food. Food never failed me, at least in the short term. I knew it would eventually, and eventually it did, but when I was stressed to the max about this or that, I’d go get something to make me feel better…a Dr. Pepper, cheese nachos, dark chocolate. I had my favorites and they didn’t fail me.

As I thought more about Mattie, I knew that often what we fear and hurt about in our adult years often have roots in our childhood. So from there, I knew Mattie was bullied when he was a kid. For being fat.

As some of you know, my family has suffered through bullying. It’s about as painful as it gets. I will never forget my son looking at me with tear-filled eyes and saying, “How am I going to go through the rest of my life this unlikable?” It literally felt like a knife was stabbed through my heart. I felt actual pain as I processed what he said, how he was viewing himself, what the world had told him and what he believed.

So, too, had Mattie believed this about himself, and as the world became even less kind to him, food became his closest friend.

Except we meet Mattie long after that. We meet him after food has betrayed him. We meet him on the cusp of a murder plot.

One of the most challenging tasks a writer can have is to make likable an unlikable character. Nobody likes a murderer. But as we dig a little deeper into Mattie, as we watch him try to pull off this murder plot, we begin to see what has turned this big man’s heart black. And I think we also see the real Mattie, the man behind all the weight and anger and bitterness…a gentle man who cherishes his wife, wants a good friend, and wishes he’d made some healthier choices.

 I knew when I wrote Escapement that Mattie Bigham was going to be a controversial character. I mean an obese guy who is plotting murder? Yeah, warm and fuzzy, right? I didn’t quite calculate, however, that he’d be really misunderstood by some. And really despised by others. Escapement is my eighteenth book, so rest assured I’ve seen some really insulting reviews over the years. I mean, give someone an anonymous place to vent, and they’re going to rip you to pieces. Sure, I’ve had good, even great, reviews too. My point is that this isn’t my first rodeo.

But what’s been particularly interesting with Escapement is how insulted some people seem to be at his very existence. It’s not that they don’t like the story, or that they’re against a would-be murderer, but they’re actually against him. It’s like they’re mad that he even exists. Sure, this is fiction, but Mattie Bigham does exist, in each of our lives. I think Mattie touches a nerve because Mattie represents all that repulses us about ourselves. Mattie, by all accounts, is weak. He’s tormented. He’s unbearably loathsome. He’s snarky, ill-tempered and hardly ever accurate in his assessment of himself or others. In other words, Mattie is a lot like us. Maybe we have a weight problem, maybe we don’t. But the truth is that we all carry the weight of a fallen world, a fallen soul and a track record of failure. It’s just that sometimes it takes a fictional character for us to see it in ourselves.

One day I was standing at a street corner with my two children. We each were holding a Big Gulp filled with soda, sipping it through a straw, observing people as we waited. A couple walked by, both puffing on cigarettes. The smoke kind of gagged us as it lingered behind them. I could see both my kids’ faces twist up in disapproval. Granted, they’ve practically been brainwashed at school about tobacco (thank goodness) so they’re pretty irate about it and consider it pure evil. My son begins his rant. “I hate cigarettes. They’re so bad for you. Why would they do that, Mom? Why would they smoke when they know how bad it is for them?” “And us!” my daughter added, angrily gesturing toward the haze in front of us. But the hate quickly spread from the smoke to the smoker. My son continued. “I hate smokers,” he said as he cast an angry glare their direction. I sat there for a moment, trying to decide how to approach this ordeal. Sure, I wanted my kids to not touch a single cigarette in their lives. But I didn’t want them to hate smokers, either. “Why do you think they smoke?” I asked the kids. They gave me their theories. “To look cool” was at the top. I said, “Well, cigarettes can give you a relaxed feeling. That’s what’s appealing about them. They make you feel relaxed. They make you feel good.” “Well! They’re still bad for you!” one of them said emphatically. Ha. Trapped. “So are sodas,” I said nonchalantly. “Especially Big Gulps.” They both looked down at the drinks in their hands. “It’s not the same,” they said. “Oh? Well, high sugar consumption can lead to diabetes and heart failure,” I said. “And other problems too.” I cast a knowing look toward them. “We should probably give up sodas.” “Nooo!” they protested. “But we drink them even though we know they’re bad for us,” I said. “And it doesn’t sound like we’re going to be able to stop drinking them very easily.” They stood there silently, watching the smokers, realizing they weren’t so far from the people they’d just proclaimed they hated.

And it’s like that for us, too. Why does society in general tend to hate fat people or drunks or gamblers? Because the truth is that we know we’re just like them. Maybe we’re not fat. But we’re definitely fallen. And because we’re fallen, there’s some kind of chink in what is surely very small armor. Most of the time we won’t admit it, but we’re just one step away from that slippery slope of self-destruction. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I brought Mattie Bigham into the world so he could find some peace in his life. Granted, it’s short lived, on this earth anyway, but I wanted to make the point that we all have holes in our hearts. And I’m not really saying that figuratively. I think we have a true, empty space there that longs to be filled. It is my belief that it can only be filled by God. Mattie has to travel an awfully long, painful, and regret-filled journey to figure this out. But I think we’re lucky enough to go on the ride with him, and maybe learn a few lessons that will save us some grief along the way.

One reviewer was so disgusted with the character that she claimed she would probably not even read the rest of the 7 Hours series. Now that’s quite a disliking, wouldn’t you say? But I’m willing to bet she’s much more like Mattie than she cares to admit. Maybe Mattie is a visual reminder for us that we’re all weighed down in this world. It’s impossible not to be. Look at the rich and famous. They’ve got everything anyone could ever want, but they’re killing themselves with booze, drugs and suicide, because at the end of the day they know that really, they have nothing but themselves, and they don’t like what they see. It’s a hard thing to stare down ourselves in a mirror and admit we’re completely messed up. Even on my best day, I’m a mess. Truly. And on my worst day? Well, you don’t even want to know.

That’s why I like Mattie. That’s why we’re friends. It’s because we’re alike. And that’s why I think, if you’ll give him a real chance, you’ll like him too. Be forewarned, Mattie is not an easy pill to swallow. He’s bitter. He’s misguided. He’s snarky. And he’s about to make the worst mistake of his life. He’s no typical hero. But then, very few are.

Travis Thrasher Mike Harden is someone who has lived through loss and tragedy and managed to move on from it. I've often written about characters stuck in the past and unable to move forward. Mike is someone deliberately running from the past and almost ignoring what happened. What happens in Teardrop ends up bringing Mike back to the past in order to deal with it. He's a former cop and a take-charge, tough guy. Yet as the story unfolds, Mike realizes you can't always take charge of everything in your life. Sometimes it's okay to admit you're broken.  

James Andrew Wilson When crafting the main character for my 7 Hours story, All of Our Dreams, I wanted to create a young man who was completely committed to his wife, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Loyalty is rare these days with divorce being about as common as coffee. Luke Harrison is a dreamer, a man with grand ideas for his life. When his wife develops a terminal disease, those dreams are torn from him. Instead of wallowing in Woe Is Me Land, or tossing his vows in the trash and leaving his wife to a lonely, terrible fate, he stays with her. He forms his entire life around her care and comfort. He's a hero, not because he carries a gun and battles nefarious villains, but because he forsakes his own desires so that he can bless his wife. Does this make Luke uncommon--too good to be true? In a day and age where we're taught that loyalty means being true to yourself--yes, perhaps he is. But he shouldn't be, and that's why I think his story is worth telling.  

Ronie Kendig Haytham “Hawk” Wilson is a die-hard soldier, so when his team is ambushed and everyone dies—except Hawk—he’s shattered. There are so many compelling true military stories that parallel Hawk’s plight, and it breaks my heart to read about them. And the media seems intent, often, on vilifying our military heroes, so I wanted to take a “what if” approach to this mission for Hawk. What if. . .what if he made the right choice. What if he should go back and kill the boy? What if. . .he shouldn’t? What if he wasn’t wrong in the first place? It’s easy as an armchair observer to “judge” those in combat and say they should’ve done X or Y, but until we’ve been in their shoes, we should reserve our judgment and extend our prayers to guide and protect these heroes.