Out of Character


I did something recently that I thought I’d never do.  And not only does it have the potential to change the course of my life, but also, the circumstances of my death.

Let me explain.

I’ve written before here about my daughter recently starting college.  Upon her turning eighteen, she intended to fulfill a long-held desire of hers:  to get a tattoo.  She first began speaking of tattoos when she was eleven or twelve.  I’m not a fan of ink, and I shared my opinions with her in some pretty blunt, insensitive ways.  In my mind, I was quite reasonable — the things that are important to you today may not be important to you twenty years from now.  I reminded her that there was a time when, if she had been allowed to get a tattoo, it would have been of Hannah Montana, someone she now detested.  It was only logical in my mind.

But she heard something different.  She heard her dad mock and insult something that had become important and special to her.  She heard me insulting something that was slowly becoming part of her identity.  As any parent of a pre-teen girl reading this knows, my actions only made her more intent on getting a tattoo the second she was legally able.

I began to realize my lapse as a parent, and I used it as a learning experience on how to communicate with my kids.  I think it helped me to be more empathetic, and to hear them on their level and from their perspective, free from my unconscious bias.  That’s not to say I haven’t still shared my opinions and sought to impart some of my values as a father, but I’ve found they’ve been a lot more receptive to my input when they don’t feel personally attacked.  

So when the big birthday finally came, I was not surprised to hear my girl make plans to go to a tattoo parlor.  I asked to go with her.  While I felt I’d grown since my lapse regarding tattoos, I still felt the need to demonstrate to her my absolute love of her, and acceptance of her choices with which I didn’t fully agree.  Yes, I too got a tattoo that day.  

Okay, maybe it was a stretch to say that being temporarily prohibited from donating blood “changed the course of my life.”  And as for the circumstances of my death, I’ll admit it was pretty unlikely I was going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery anyway for many reasons, chief of which being that I’m not even remotely Jewish.  But it was still pretty out of character for me.

And that’s what I wanted to share here.  Writers love to create new characters that seem like real, multidimensional people.  They need to have a certain consistency in their speech and actions.  Their choices and motivations need to resonate with the reader as “true.”  But there’s a tricky balance, I think.  People, like the best and most realistic fictional characters, are not carved out of stone.  They’re quirky, complicated, unpredictable.  A rich tapestry of contradictions that make the whole more compelling.  A character who has a ruthless dedication to fitness and exercise may occasionally indulge in chocolate cake.  A seemingly loving husband and father may perpetrate a gruesome and grisly murder.  A charming and exceptionally humble private eye and aspiring author who hates ink may one day get a tattoo.  And yet it all works with the right context.  out-of-character-darth-vader-640x534

When people hear about my ink, I get two questions.  The first is, what did I get a tattoo of?  Well, I didn’t think about it a whole lot.  I originally thought of getting a tattoo of the word, “TATTOO.”  The content was meaningless to me, I only cared about the symbolic action of getting a tattoo.  The meta absurdity of it appealed to me.  But then I thought of something better.

Our family laughs a lot.  A lot.  Sometimes, our kids get in such a laughing mood, they will laugh at virtually anything.  In just such a mood, my daughter once begged me to stop making her laugh.  I told her that I wasn’t making her laugh, she’d laugh at anything at all.  This pen.  (She laughed.)  This coffee mug!  (She laughed.)  Then, I leaned in and whispered, “paper clip.”  She laughed even harder.  Ever since, the phrase “paper clip” has become the greatest bit of comedy in all of history.  At least in our household.  So yeah, I have a living monument to the Microsoft Word help mascot permanently engraved on my skin.

The second question I get is WHERE did I get this tattoo?

Well, that’s easy…

At Deja Vu Tattoos and Piercings in Baton Rouge, LA.  Ask for Kitty.

-Ben Keller

PS–Later this week I’ll have the chance to see some of the other Murder Books writers and more writer friends, including our super agent Paula Munier at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto!  I hope to see you there.  If you see me, and ask nicely, I just might show you my tattoo!  

3 thoughts on “Out of Character

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