Saturday, April 5, 2014

What do you get a 160-year-old guy for his birthday?

Today is a very special day: On April 5th, 1854, Richard Ashley Corrigan, the main character of my novel Swords & Sixguns, was born in New York.  Yes, I really did give him a birthday.  It was something I used to do when I first began making up characters, and I fell out of the habit not long after I bestowed Richard with his.  It was a way to make these fictional characters feel more “real” to me, and in Richard’s case, it gave me a baseline so I could figure out where and when he fit in historically.  So, since this is his big day, I thought I’d give you a peek at how he came to be.

The truth is, Richard was born when I got stuck on a scene for the story I was working on back in 1991.  At the time, I was transitioning from trying to draw a whole story -- page by page like a comic book -- to actually writing it out in full prose, plus I was moving away from superhero rip-offs and into fantasy (mostly because that’s the sort of stuff my friends in high school were writing).  I’ve never been a full-on fantasy fan, though: I like the aesthetic, but I’m not interested in reading or watching every single sword-wielding epic that comes along, and writing in typical fantasy style isn’t all that appealing to me, either.  But again, this is what my friends were writing, so I decided to give it a whirl by building a medieval world that I dubbed Arkhein, which I quickly populated with all the usual cliché characters: the swordsman, the spellcaster, the thief, and on and on (the results weren’t very good, and those original tales now reside in a landfill somewhere).  Then came the day when I decided that my thief must have learned his trade from someone, but I couldn’t nail down who that someone was (despite the clichés, I was trying to do some actual character development), so I put the work aside and went to bed.

This is the point where reality takes a weird turn.  I had a dream about playing poker in some seedy bar with a guy I’d never laid eyes on before -- brown hair, stubbly face, dingy coat -- who scooped all the money off of the table and ran away after I’d won the hand.  Determined to get my winnings back, I went after him, dodging folks in the crowded street outside the bar as I yelled his name, “Corrigan!

I woke up the next day with the memory of this guy still in my head.  Strange thing was, I couldn’t recall at the time ever hearing the name “Corrigan” beforehand (I now believe that I subconsciously picked it up from a local company called Corrigan Oil, which has a sign that’s plainly visible from a highway I frequently traveled on around that time).  Why that name in particular decided to drift through my sleeping brain, I have no idea, but it stuck fast to this new character, and other details about him soon came into focus, like the first name of “Richard” (it just sounded right) and the fact that, despite his presence in a traditional fantasy setting, he carried a gun.  I think I can blame my still-blossoming interest in Westerns for the latter wrinkle, mixed with my love of Star Wars (it was obvious from the start that Richard’s attitude was similar to Han Solo’s), and after failing to mentally shoo that anachronism away, I gave in and began to reason out why he had it.  Well, he must not be from that world, I thought.  He’s from Earth, and he got transported to Arkhein somehow...he found a crossroad between worlds...

And that was when the clichés finally started to dissolve in favor of real storytelling.  All the work I’d put into Arkhein up to that point was chopped up and sifted through, with the best pieces repurposed for the new tale I was now constructing around this Old West outlaw who’d been dropped into a medieval setting.  It wasn’t until 1994 that I really began to buckle down and write a full-fledged novel as opposed to jotting down little scenes and doodling -- the picture above is one of the earliest drawings I did of Richard, taken from an old notebook I used to organize story ideas -- there were many more stops and starts along the way, but I believed in the character and the idea enough to keep going, and I’m proud that all the work has paid off.  We’ve still got at least a year before the novel is printed, but I think it’ll be worth the wait.

We’ll talk some other time about the earlier versions of Arkhein that existed before I finally completed Swords & Sixguns (to speak of those prior to the novel’s release would bring spoilers), so for now, let me just tip my hat in Richard’s direction and wish him a happy 160th birthday.  May we have even bigger things to celebrate next year.


  1. I really like the idea of celebrating the birthday of a fictional character. I'm a writer too, but it had never occurred to me doing something like this.

    1. I know of only a few fictional characters with established birthdays, but yes, I'll put up a blog post for Richard Corrigan's special day every year from now on, just as I'll always give a nod to Jonah Hex on November 1st. ;)