In The Things We Cannot Keep, three brothers reconnect when the oldest one is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction that happened two decades ago. At the insistence of the youngest brother, they go on a camping trip hoping to recapture the magic of the camping excursions from their youth, but things quickly go awry when the weight of their tattered family proves too much. Buster McElroy is the middle brother, a somewhat unreliable narrator who is opinionated, confrontational, and more than mildly provocative.
Now in his 40s, Buster came of age in the chaos leading up to his brother’s conviction and hardened into the cynical critic that he is in the aftermath of his brother’s incarceration. He lacks the empathy that often betrays his younger brother and leaves no kind words in his wake. In the story, he’s the one that changes the most after the unfortunate events unfold following his brother’s release, but he’d refuse to admit it.
To a writer, characters are real people, maybe not in the flesh-and-blood sense, but they are very real in every other way. My characters tend to emerge, not as fully-formed persons in their own right, but as ones that evolve over time. It’s much like when you first meet someone and they introduce themselves in an often-superficial sense, but as you talk to them and learn more, you get a better idea of who they are. As you spend more and more time with them, you learn more about them, and the picture of their personalities develops like old-fashioned film coming to life under the sheen of chemicals in a dark room.
Buster is no different. When I first came up with the idea for this novel (it’s only a concept at this point), he was more defined by his birth order than any singular character trait he possessed because at that point he had none. Slowly, as the story idea turned over in my mind, he became the narrator. Then, he became the skeptical voice that resonated throughout the story. Then, I started thinking “What would Buster say?” whenever I thought of a new twist in the tale. Before I knew it, I had a fully-formed novel outline bustling around in my brain and Buster was the driving force.
For my main characters, I like to write the story of their lives before I write the novel that surrounds them. This gives me reference material as the actual novel unfolds and helps me keep them in character during the inevitable gyrations of novel development. It’s too easy to introduce inconsistencies over the months-long process of developing the first draft, and even later, during rewrites, characters can fall off the wagon if you don’t have a strong idea of who they are.
So who is Buster McElroy? He’s the narrator of The Things We Cannot Keep. He’s a provocative, somewhat unreliable narrator who cajoles the other characters in ways that exploit their weaknesses. He’s an unrepentant critic of everyone whose steadfast opinions color the world around him in ways that blind him. He’s also still evolving as a character, but one thing is certain. The events that unfold over the course of the novel will change him. For better or for worse has yet to be determined.