How many “characters” have you encountered in your lifetime? I’m not talking about symbols, or letters of the alphabet. I’m referring to those men and women who, either by intent or accident, gain the reputation of being a “character.” Often the full term is “real character.” “That guy Charlie – he’s a real character!”
A character is sometimes referred to by other names. Such as a “real card.” Or a “nut case.” Or a “queer fish.” Take your pick, but be ready to define your choice. Tags can be tricky.
What makes a character a character? What makes one person a character to some of his acquaintances, and a pain in the neck to everyone else he knows? How many genuine characters should you expect to meet in a lifetime? If you can’t immediately answer those questions, don’t feel bad. We’re talking about a foggy, ill-defined area.
Years ago I knew a character I’ll call Henry, an intense, talkative, sometimes overwhelming man. He was an artist, sailboat jockey, gun lover and erstwhile recovered alcoholic. He carried a pistol in his sock, just in case. An evening in Henry’s presence could leave you exhausted but thoroughly entertained. You didn’t have to search for conversational topics – Henry took care of that. He was generally well informed, but he carried with him a number of ideas that were so far out in left field you couldn’t even see them. He stayed sober for many years, and helped dozens of other alcoholics. Then one day he decided to go back to drinking, which he did, in moderate fashion, until his death. I’ve never known another alcoholic who could carry off that trick without quickly crashing, but Henry did it. He was a character, at least by my estimate.
I could never be a character. I’m too dull. I have a few quirks (we all do) but I’m conventional in most respects. Characters always have one or more traits that are out of bounds in the eyes of “normal” persons. Sooner or later, a true character will go off the reservation, sometimes by breaking the law but usually by just being stubborn, self-willed or passionate about a cause or a personal belief.
Is Donald Trump a character? He could be, if he were likeable or amusing. But he’s not. The Donald is a pain. Most characters – although irritating at times – are not really painful to be around. They are usually amusing in some fashion, often without trying.
But being funny doesn’t automatically qualify a person to be known as a character. I’m sitting here thinking of all the professional comedians we know, and I’m having trouble identifying any of them as full-fledged characters. One reason for that: a comedian is a performer. He/she is trying to be entertaining, and that immediately disqualifies him. A true character doesn’t have to try to be one. He’s that way because he can’t help it.
Politicians are sometimes characters, or at least come close to being one. Lyndon Johnson might have deserved the title of “a real character” because of his quirks and habits, if only he hadn’t been so mean and vengeful. A character is seldom a frightening person, and LBJ could (and did) scare the wits out of his opponents.
Jack Kennedy was a man of memorable traits, but I don’t think he could be called a character. Same way with Richard Nixon. Both men were conniving souls who tried to shape their reputations for public consumption. But a true character doesn’t much care what the public thinks of him. Teddy Roosevelt lived on the brink of character-dom (if such a word exists). So did Calvin Coolidge. The late Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) was a character. His florid oratorical style earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Ooze.” He campaigned hard for the marigold to be adopted as the national flower. The Texan Ross Perot, who sort of ran for president in 1992, was a full-fledged character, and it probably cost him his chance at the White House. Does today’s Congress contain any characters? Probably, but the normal goings-on in the House and Senate are so bizarre it’s hard to tell who’s a character and who’s not.
If you are determined to meet a character, associate with dogs. The canine world is flush with pets whose personalities are funny, unpredictable and borderline crazy. Today I’m close to two dogs – a mini-schnauzer named Max and a white whippet, Annabelle. Max is a fanatic in the defense of his home, but he’s not really a character. But Annabelle is. Her love of life, people and adventure catapult her outside the lines almost every day. I guess that’s where all characters are most at home: outside the lines.
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.