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In this surreal road novel, Anthony searches for the father he’s never met: Andy Kaufman, the legendary song-and-dance man from the ’70s. There’s a few problems here, of course. A) Andy Kaufman died in 1984, and B) Thanks to a recent cancer diagnosis, Anthony doesn’t have much longer to live, either. However, new evidence has come to light that questions whether or not Kaufman is actually dead. Could he be in hiding, after all these years? Anthony is determined to discover the truth before his own clock runs out. During his travels, he will encounter shameless medicine men, grifters, Walmart shoppers, the ghosts of Elvis and Warhol, and the Devil himself.

Friday, July 6, 2012

RAGTIME & Writing Character Voice

                 “How did you know I’d drink the moonshine? You must have known from observing me that I don’t touch the serpent’s venom.”
            Sumac giggled and sneered and sucked on her ersatz cigarette. She tittered with her teeth, biting on the cigarette holder.
            “You struggle against chaos. You fight to hold it at bay, but it overwhelms you, the tide rushing in. Dance on your toes, but you can’t hold it back. And you longed so for it. In your eyes, I could see it—how you’ve chased the darkness, hoping for its embrace. Emancipation. Freedom. All I had to do was put the glass in front of you and curl my lips and show my smooth, lovely thighs. You were sniffing for it.”

—Ragtime Ascension (Ragtime Cycles) by T. Fox Dunham
A Clockwork Orchard: Rivets & Rain published by May December Publications

At the heart of effective character is the unique spirit, yet also there is the same core identity prototypical to the human animal. I have observed people all my life: listened to their life stories, watched their actions, remarked on the common cycles and motivations that compel them. I have discovered that every person is an individual, but the human heart is identical in its needs. No matter how different people are, the same needs drive them in life.

People want to be loved and are scared of being hurt.

Of course, in life there are many gray shades and complex mathematical matrices to identity. My statement is a generalization, but it is supported; and though I still have much to learn about the human heart, I can put it present it with confidence. There are exceptions to this axiom, as with all systems, and these exceptions also make for fascinating characters.

When writing characters, it is important to remember that fiction is not a report on reality or real life. Like the stage, narrative fiction is its own plane, a surreal reality. This is an art form that has evolved for centuries. We are writing of dramatized reality. Characters can’t be copies of real people. They are the extremes, the archetypes, the deities and symbols. We already have a medium for direct reality, facts reported and life witnessed. Fiction is a different format. That’s why most real life stories need to be reorganized and dramatized, applied to a dramatic pattern, an arc that builds.

My characters are never clones from life. I never take a person I know and represent them exactly in my work. My characters are composites, elements of several people and myself in varying levels, blended together then shaped in extremes of the physical, emotional-mental and spiritual. A character’s soul is his or her voice. My readers often comment that even though some of my characters have minute physical presence, their characterization is strong, indelible because of their voice. Their voice defines character: how they see the world, respond to changes, grow and change.

A character’s voice is their soul, the way they digest their world and give back to it.

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The Lady Poison Sumac, Drag Dancer at the Pink Gopher.

Poison Sumac is an iconic character in my Ragtime Cycles. She is a transvestite, a drag queen. She is chaos manifested in a human shell. Born in the burned wastes leftover from the Wild-Eyed Fire—the great conflagration which ended the modern era of humanity—the child Poison Sumac lived in a barbarian’s world that had no regard for law or life. Her milieu helped define her, educated her. Chaos became her faith. She has one goal: to aid and watch society collapse then dance while it burns. This is her character voice, and it was defined by her birth, the setting of her life and confirmed by the actions of the people around her. This seeded in Sumac, growing inside, devouring and transforming until it became Sumac’s nature.

               “You’re going to cover the world in darkness,” she said. “I must love you.”
            “All the equipment is still in my home, the cathedral. With sound, vibration I will renew, invigorate. I will tell him how proud I am, how wrong I was. He will wrap his hands around my neck and kiss my cheeks. I will make him immortal.”
            She clapped like a child, pleased by the clowns in the show.
            “How terribly cruel,” she said.

—Ragtime by T. Fox Dunham
From Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders

In the Ragtime Cycles, Poison Sumac is the dealer of Ragtime—a narcotic that not only alters the body but also the mind and the spirit. It is a remnant of the old paradise, the sum and final product of a course of science and evolution. It survived The Wild-Eyed Fire and was kept and guarded like a religious artifact until it found its way into the possession of Sumac. She saw it as the fire to burn it all, to expose the truth of the human animal, the ridiculous nature of life. Sumac is a nihilist. Life is an error to her, a cosmic mistake, and she finds elements of society like law and decency to be fraudulent, a lark. To her, sex, love, loyalty, and faith are vapid, meaningless. They are expressions of vanity, futility. All life ends and is forgotten. While people scream in terror at the inevitable darkness, she laughs at them. She giggles wildly into the night.

So she serves the Preacher, the nameless figurehead of the city with no name. Such names are forbidden. Names give power. The people of this last city secretly have named it after a line from a poem that survived the Wild-Eyed Fire. They whisper the name of the city: Lovers Be Lost. She aids in The Preacher’s plans for ascension, using the drug Ragtime, but she is not motivated by duty or faith. She observes only to see him fail, to affirm her own absence of faith and acceptance of what she believes is the true nature of life.

Poison Sumac exists to pleasure herself in the suffering of others as their plans of control fail. This is her nature, her voice, how she sees the cosmos. You will see it clearly in narratives I have copied, and you will find it sutured into the stories.

Three stories have been published so far in the Ragtime Cycles. I have listed the previous two. A third story, The Tick-Tock Heart of Starbat, was published in Jake’s Anthologies Punk Issue. Starbat was partly based on my close friend Star, who has drawn some of the sketches of Poison Sumac. I hope to have a recent sketch to link to this blog.

I am developing the stories into an anthology and planning a novel. I will then script this novel, and I am seeking a production company to turn it into a noir animated film. I need a good publisher or production company if you're interested.


The best advice I can give in writing character voice is to define your character’s nature then let it fill you. When I write, I give life to my characters, and I hollow myself out with a melon baller. I turn my person into a pipe organ that my characters can play. Character voice is their nature, the sum of what they are. Some of that does come from you as the author, but your characters also require autonomy to be able to truly express themselves. They are extreme in nature, unlike real people who tend to blend in with the group. As an author, you need to turn over control of your narrative to your characters, to allow them to move as motivated by their natures. This risks your well conceived plans and plot, and if you’re doing it right, your characters will often through a bowling ball into your hall of mirrors. Your characters will rebel against your conscription, to the rigid confinement of your designs, and if you listen to them, they will steer your narratives in new and surprising ways.

* * *

And make sure to pick up a copy of A Clockwork Orchard: Rivets & Rain from May December Publishing. I am honored to be included with such talented authors. 

The TOC for our Steampunk Anthology – A Clockworks Orchard: Rivets and Rain: Michael Seese,  Never Mind The Nonsense, Here’s The Sex Truncheons – Paul Boulet, Skymanned City – Mark Jones, Running Out of Steam – Adam Millard, A Clockwork Orang(utan) – Dorothy Reede, A Demonstration of Loyalty – McAbee Gail, Sheriff Holt and the Purple Stagecoach Mystery – Bob Lock, Il Risorgimento – T Fox Dunham, Ragtime Ascension- Christopher Eger, The Assassins Assassin – and Jill Watts, Feast of Souls.

Follow me on Twitter: @TFoxDunham.
Facebook page for updates on my work:
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New Sun Rising Anthology

I also want to ask my readers to pickup a copy of The New Sun Rising Anthology, edited by the illustrious and determined Annie Evett and teeming with poetry, short fiction, artwork and spirit of some of the best of international talents—somehow I snuck in there too for my story, Cherry Blossoms Never Die. Money raised by the anthology will go to support The Red Cross in its efforts to rebuild after the nuclear accident and natural disaster that struck Japan.

What I love about this anthology is that it is a reminder of the beauty of Japan. Where other anthologies chronicled the natural disaster, New Sun Rising set out to showcase the soul of that ancient and mythical land and remind the world why it must be preserved.

I thank you Annie Evett for an inspiring job and your diligence in seeing the project through.

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