Santa Barbara have special meaning for me?
Santa Barbara is a writer’s dream. It is a crazy piece of real estate, hanging by its fingernails from foothills and mountains, which are not noted for their stability. The ocean takes continual swipes at it, fires seem to enjoy their stay in its hills and canyons, and drunken Republicans, wearing outfits from the Spanish past, fall off horses while parading.
When I came here, it reminded me of the L.A. I grew up in. Now, it reminds me of the L.A. I visit. Santa Barbara does not want to be L.A.; it is happy being what it is, happy to sprout signs that read “L.A. Go Home,” happy to crazy, judgmental, friendly, smug, and reflective of its place in the universe. Nearly sundown at Butterfly or Ledbetter Beaches, you’ll find locals applauding the setting of the sun, then arguing about where to get the best dinner.
Santa Barbara is a place where long-time waiters and postal clerks own apartment buildings on the Westside, where rich people dress up to eat at the known tourist trap, The Super Rica Taco, and where poor people dress down to eat at Via Maestra 42.
People come here thinking to dream the Santa Barbara dream, but when they discover what it is, they instead watch reruns of Breaking Bad. Cultures clash here, but when they do, there is always a polite apology and the thought that next time, we can do it better. Everyone knows where to get the best fresh fish, right off the boat, when the best hours are for shopping Trader Joe’s, and why, even though you do not care for coconut cake, you always give coconut cakes from Janine’s as host/hostess gifts.
Santa Barbara matters to me because it is willing to be goofier than Los Angeles. I had to go to the university where I taught in Los Angeles to get stories. I certainly get stories from the university here, but I am every bit as likely to get them at my morning coffee at Peet’s or The French Press.
People come to Santa Barbara—as I did—to get away from craziness. Instead, they find love.
What makes a good character?
A good character wants something even more than you do; he or she fools no one with attempts to hide the yearning, has already made plans to spend the reward, once it is bestowed.
A good character has already rehearsed his/her acceptance speech for having accomplished the goal, in effect spending the benefits before they are delivered. Characters who get what they want are often cynical, not sure if they merited the results or happened upon them by accident. Thus there is a constant residue of uncertainty, a tendency to mistrust, a tendency to take enormous risks.
Good characters are neither practical nor easy-going. Look at Ishmael: two, three paragraphs into Moby-Dick, he admits to being bi-polar. He’s smart enough to know what to do about it, and so far, he’s had good luck, but look what happened when he finally got Melville to take him on. Instead of a routine stint on a whaler, he signs on with a maniac who has a wooden leg and, as a result, a grudge.
Don’t forget Bill Sykes, one of Dickens’ more endearing sorts in Oliver Twist. Bill is so into his character that even his dog can’t stand him.
This does not mean I think for a character to be “good,” or “interesting;” he or she must be gloomy and maniacal. Delusional is good, too. Look at Don Quixote. Look at the self-interest of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.
I admire a character who has the ability to grow into constructive change. I’d like to have been Huck Finn. I’d especially like to have had the chance to be him, then meet up ten or twelve years later with Tom Sawyer.
Right now, I’m rereading an old friend, Jim Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Wouldn’t mind being his C.W. Sughrue for a week or so, but then, in deference to my liver, I’d have to move on. For a while.
For a character to be “good” and “interesting,” you have to suspect of them early on that they’ll lead you beyond your boundaries. ##