Deb Erika’s Fathers Don’t Always Know Best

Little Gale Gumbo, by Erika MarksWe’re talking about Fathers this week at the Ball, so since I took advantage of Mothers week to talk about the mothers in my novel, I thought it only fair that I take this opportunity to address the fathers.

For those of you who have read LITTLE GALE GUMBO, you know that the story deals in extremes when it comes to fathers. On the one side of the coin, there is Ben Haskell, native islander and devoted single father to teenage son Matthew. Ben is deeply emotionally connected to his son, determined to provide him with a stable and nurturing environment, despite being left by his wife when Matthew was only three. He welcomes teenagers Josie and Dahlia into his home and his heart, eventually becoming a father to them—an affection made only stronger by his love for their mother, Camille.

Charles Bergeron, by contrast, is the poster child of a poor father. He does the unimaginable: he blatantly favors one child (Josie) over another (Dahlia), he is abusive and controlling, unreliable at best and dangerously unpredictable at worst. The novel’s characters (and readers) steel themselves for his next explosion, his next surprise arrival to Little Gale Island with his next half-baked plan to get rich.

So this week’s theme got me thinking: was Ben easier to write than Charles? In other words, is it easier to write one type of father than another? Or, more in general, is it easier to write likable characters over unlikable ones?

I’m not sure I could say. Frankly, I found both Ben and Charles very easy to discover, to flesh out and write. Unlike some of the female characters, such as Camille and Josie who are conflicted at various points in the novel, the fathers in this story are, for the most part, without inner conflict when it comes to their goals. For all their differences, Ben and Charles share one very important trait: their determination to protect what they love. For Ben, that is not only Camille, but the unit of the blended family they have created together. For Charles, it is Camille, and the family (though what his definition of family is might be debatable) he wishes to control. Does Charles love Camille? He believes he does, but anyone can see it is not a healthy, nurturing love; nor is it that for his youngest daughter Josie. For Charles, it is about controlling what he believes he owns.

I think about fathers in books that I’ve read—those honorable and those who struggled with demons and lost—and many come to mind, among them, Atticus Finch, Pa Ingalls, Quoyle from The Shipping News, Jack Torrance from The Shining. And of course there are so many to choose from in Shakespeare’s plays: from Prospero from The Tempest to Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who is as much Father to the fairies as their King. For all their differences, they are all fathers, always aware of the responsibilities of their role, even if they aren’t all equally capable of meeting it.

This week’s Deb Dish posed the question, is it easier to write mothers or fathers and I thought I’d address that in this post. After looking at fathers in novels, and my novel in particular, I might say it is easier to write fathers. Why? Maybe because there are more established archetypes for them, which is not to say there are none for mothers, but I think so often in literature, mothers are allowed a wider berth of personalities, of inner conflict, of choices. I will say that I found it more demanding of myself as a writer to shape the mother character of Camille than to shape either of the fathers. Is that because she was a mother, or simply because of who she was? (Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ask  my biologist husband to explain that whole chicken-or-the-egg thing to me again…)

Dear readers, what literary father (or father-figure) has most recently stuck with you?

6 Replies to “Deb Erika’s Fathers Don’t Always Know Best”

  1. I love the way you handled the fathers in LITTLE GALE GUMBO, Erika–both ends of the spectrum, the good and the bad, but yet not caricatures in the slightest. They are solidly real, and so very human (in Charles’s case, frighteningly so). That takes real skill to pull off. Kudos to you.

    And Atticus Finch is the standout literary father from my early reading. He’s hard to top.

  2. You did an AMAZING job with both of these characters, Erika. They were both so layered and complex even though it was clear who was the good guy and who was the bad. As for literary fathers, well, I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I adore Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables. Even though he’s not technically a father, he’s the sweetest man there ever was, yet with a fierce passion for his Anne, so fierce that he’d even stand up to Marilla on her behalf.

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