Monday, September 30, 2013

Characters: Wealth and Glamor

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series (scroll down to the bottom of the post).  This week we're talking about Wealth.

Last week I talked about how the incredible wealth of the billionaires in some popular fiction genres is really just a stand in for the magic power of earlier types of stories, such as Dracula.  (And how it all goes back, in a Freudian sort of way, to sex appeal.)

But even when I look at it on a more literal level, without going into the psychological symbolism, wealth is still a kind of magic.  And not just in fiction.  In the real world, wealth is glamorous.

Whether it's Nick and Nora Charles sipping martinis while casually solving crime, or Minnie the Moocher dreaming of diamond cars with platinum wheels, or the old world gilding of royal accoutrements, wealth has that magical sheen.

And that's what the word "glamor" actually means. It's the glowy sheen that flickers over the surface of magic.

The thing about glamor is 1.) wealth isn't the only source of it, and 2.) some people are more affected by it than others.

And that brings me to the first characters of my own that I want to talk about: Karla Marquette and George Starling, the lead characters from The Man Who Did Too Much, a cozy mystery set in Northern Lower Michigan.

George is the wealthiest character I've ever written.  Karla is pretty well nigh immune to glamor -- especially as it relates to wealth. 

Glamor vs. Content

When Karla first sees George, she notes three things.  He seems depressed, he stands like a cop or a fed or an IRS agent, and the trench coat he's wearing is much too expensive for any of those.

By this point it's pretty clear to the reader that Karla is a geeky small town spinster with no interest in fashion -- so one of my beta readers objected to the fact that she would know the trench coat was expensive.

To this reader, "expensive" meant "designer label."  Or, in other words, glamor.  And she was right, Karla's knowledge of designers and fashion is pretty much limited to what she sees on the red carpet at Oscar time.

So no, Karla wouldn't know if George's trench coat was from a high-profile designer, or whether it was this year's style, or years out of style.

What Karla sees is quality of materials and craftsmanship.  And because she's not interested in clothes, that's all she bothers to note: it's expensive.  But if you asked her, she would point out a million details that she simply took in unconsciously: The fabric, needlework, the way it fits, the way it looks broken in without looking worn.

The fact is, George's clothes are not fashionable.  They're as conservative, plain and unstylish as he can get them.  He likes to blend in.  He has them tailor made because A) his tailor knows what he wants, and B) his tailor knows exactly the sort of damage George is likely to do to his clothes, and adjusts for that, and C) it never occurred to George to get his clothes anywhere else.

That last is only half true: his tailor doesn't make "gear."  So George gets his winter boots and fatigues and workout clothes and stuff from sources of top notch professional gear -- not the stuff that's in fashion, but the stuff that will stand up to abuse and weather. But he's also a light traveler, because he has the money to buy what he needs wherever he goes.  If he needs something, he'll get it from the nearest vendor, even if it's Walmart.

George, in other words, is very wealthy but he's not in the least bit glamorous.  And that was one of the great problems of his youth, because his family is not only very wealthy, but also very glamorous.

In Chapter 17, when Karla points out to him that he has more grace than he thinks he does, he puts it this way:

"I was well brought up.  The Starlings are a very polished family.  But that's not the same thing.  The truth is, I'm not really a Starling."

"You were adopted?"

"No, no, I didn't mean that."  He laughed.  "Although there is much speculation about how I must have been switched at birth.  Somewhere there is a family of dockworkers or gangsters with a polished politician for a son they can't account for."

If Karla were Sherlock Holmes, she might have deduced all that from his clothes, but though she is incredibly intuitive, she withholds judgement, and only notes the clues to what he is like: he has the demeanor of a cop, but his clothes are too expensive, and he's driving a tacky rental car and he speaks with an unidentifiable not-British accent.  Not your average bear.  A puzzle, in fact.

Which is exactly what he's intended to be.

So I kinda want to just leave it there.  There's a heck of a lot to say about George and his relationship with wealth, and how other people view him because of it, but the fact is, he is a puzzle to himself and to others, and that's part of what the series is about.

All the same, I will talk about him when we get to the subject of Alpha Dogs next week, and I think I should use him to introduce three topics about wealth that I'm going to compare among a bunch of my other characters tomorrow.

1.) Wealth as a Super Power (at least to characters who have it).

George could be Batman.  He could be spending his money on cool tools to give himself great powers -- but he just doesn't think of that.  George is a very "in the moment" kind of guy.  He doesn't equip himself for contingencies.  He only carries a gun when he actually plans to use it.  If he even bothered to think about it (which he doesn't) he would say he doesn't carry a gun because he'll just take it away from the bad guy if he needs one.

2.) The Jelly Bean Factor.

Money tends to bring out a person's secret irrational longing.  So when they win the lottery, they go out and buy a million jelly beans, even though they couldn't possibly eat them or store them. George has had everything he wants all his life. He doesn't really want for anything like that.  But if he believes you need a million jelly beans, watch out for dump trucks full of multi-colored sweet things.  (So you've got to be careful what you say around him.)  George's secret irrational longing is for approval.

3.) What would happen if George were to lose his fortune?

He'd probably be happier. He'd rather make his own way, and he has great survival skills.  As it is he let his family put his money into trust for him because he has a problem with gold-diggers.  But if he had no money, he'd also have to face his demons more directly.  Right now, if he sees someone in minor distress he can often buy his way out of his compulsion to help them.  Not being able to do that would put him at risk of becoming an outlaw.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a pair who would seem the opposite of George: the wandering saddle-bum detectives, Mick and Casey McKee from the Mick and Casey Mysteries. Then Wednesday I'll talk about several characters from The Case of the Misplaced Hero, who cover a spectrum from the very rich, to the very socialist.

See you in the funny papers.

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