OPEN INK PERSPECTIVES

Behind the Smile by Kelly Jensen

It’s no secret that I like to write grumpy characters. A lot of my guys are prickly, spiky, sometimes not-very-nice and often quite maudlin. In thinking about recurring themes in my work, however, it’s my happy characters that are more interesting. They’re more complicated. Often, behind the smile, lurks a deep sorrow; loss, depression or a history of not-very-nice-stuff.

We’ll start with Felix. When the reader first meets Felix in Chaos Station, he seems like a pretty cheerful guy. He’s happily pulling apart a refrigerator, chatting with his BFF—who just happens to be a blue alien—and totally discounts the fact that another of his crewmates might be a little bit ticked about the mess he’s making. It quickly becomes apparent that while Felix seems fairly settled, a lot of his humour is used as a shield, and it’s pretty thin. In fact, it takes no time at all for Zed to poke a few holes in it, and by the end of Lonely Shore (Chaos Station #2), Felix isn’t really a happy guy at all. He’s prickly, spiky, self-destructive and generally unpleasant.

He has a good excuse. The guy is a former POW. But even before the war, his life was little more than series of mishaps until he met Zed. By the end of the series, Felix regains his equilibrium, and his smiles and laughter are a whole lot more genuine.

Writing his journey took a lot out of me emotionally and mentally. I not only had to put myself in his headspace to write a lot of his scenes, but I also had to delve into grief, alcoholism, depression and PTSD. These are not happy subjects and because so much of what I wrote for Felix came from personal experience, wrapping up his story with a happy ever after was more than a relief.

In my next published novella, Out in the Blue, I wrote a grumpy guy called Jared. Opposite, I wrote Fin, who, from the very first page, floods Jared’s life with sunshine. He’s light and bright and cheerful. He chooses Jared as his hiking buddy before they’ve even met and, all through the hike, he verbally massages Jared’s aches, pains and mental anguish. It quickly becomes obvious that Fin’s cheer hides a recent tragedy. Of the two, his back story is definitely sadder. He doesn’t fall apart in the same way Felix does, though. He has moments, here and there, but really, Fin is a happy person who’s suffered a great loss and is waiting to be happy again.

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In Counting Fence Posts, Henry is the happy one—in a quiet and steadfast manner. He loves his job and he’s very happy in his choice of career. He’s been out since he was a teenager and has the love and support of his family. Henry has a really good life! What’s lurking behind his happiness? It’s tempting to say it isn’t a big deal, but any form of discrimination and abuse is a Big Deal and the episode he shares with Marc in Counting Down (coming March/April 2017) obviously lingers in his memory.

I have a novel coming out in January called Block and Strike. It’s a pretty serious book, my first solo novel, and it was thinking about Max and Jake, the principle characters, that prompted me to write this post. Max is my spiky cactus in this one and Jake—well, despite his recent past Jake comes across as pretty settled. He’s cheerful, purposeful and really feels like he’s getting his life together. Yeah, not so much. While Max begins to move forward, Jake unravels at the seams. Both guys go through a lot in this book, but I think it’s safe to say that Jake actually has the rougher course. He has so much to forgive and he has a really hard time doing it.

So which one am I? The gruff character or the happy one? I’m both, obviously, but I think the fact that my happy characters are the more complex is very telling. I recently downloaded an app called Super Mii and set about making myself a cute, comic inspired avatar. When I got to the mouths, I naturally went for the sideways ones, the straight ones, the slightly downturned and curious ones. Not the happy smiles. Yet, if you look at my author photo, I’m grinning like a fool. I work hard to make all of my social media posts upbeat and positive and I’m generally known as a gregarious and happy person. So often, that’s not who I always see in the mirror.

I am actually very content and basically happy, but I’ve been around for forty-eight years, so there’s a lot behind my smiles. I left home when I was nineteen to escape a mentally ill and abusive parent. If I’d known how to support myself earlier, I’d have left earlier. But I’d been raised without a lot of basic tools—self-worth being chief among them. Leaving home also meant dropping out of college and finding a job. I had to figure out how to support myself. Then came the real lessons in life, too many of which were viewed through a fog of destructive habits. Self-worth was a long time in coming.

I could go on, tell you the rest of it, but life isn’t a contest and the important part is that “basically happy.” Life is hard! It’s frustratingly complex. I choose to be grateful for what I have and I cling to that when life tries to take my happiness away. It’s as if I get up every morning, shake my fist and yell: Not today! 

So when I write my happy characters, I tend to imbue them with that same attitude. They’re my fighters. My rough diamonds. They’re the ones who have struggled to get to where they are and are probably going to have to keep pushing crap uphill with a pointed stick. But they’ll do it smiling, by damn, because they’re not quitters. They’re taking hold of their happy and wearing it every day like it’s their favourite shirt—until one of my grumpy guys comes along and starts poking holes in the fabric. 😉

Real people are more complicated. You can’t tell someone who isn’t happy to smile and hope that a simple shift of muscles around the mouth will make all the difference. Life doesn’t work that way. Not everyone knows how to find their happy and for some, it’s not just not on the map they’re holding right now. Hopefully it’s on another one. But when I look for recurring themes in my work, this need to smile and to be okay resonates strongly—even through my grumpier guys. They’re working toward something too, whether it’s their version of happy, or a place of contentment. They want to grow and change. They have goals. All my characters do. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for my apparently happy guys, though, because while everyone I write carries a piece of me, I know where these guys want to go. And when I write them, they take me along for the ride.

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sadmiiIf aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.

Kelly is the author of a number of novels, novellas and short stories, including the Chaos Station series, co-written with Jenn Burke. A lot of what she writes is speculative in nature, but sometimes it’s just about a guy losing his socks and/or burning dinner. Because life isn’t all conquering aliens and mountain peaks. Sometimes finding a happy ever after is all the adventure we need.

Connect with Kelly:

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