The Magic of the Cage-Free Character

The Magic of the Cage-Free Character

Cage-free characters do not arrive in novels prepackaged and preprogrammed. But when a cage-free character does forge his way into existence, an author can count himself as lucky. And I do mean very lucky…

So what is a cage-free character? He or she typically starts off as a minor character who somehow yanks control of the story from the creator. In the process, our free-range character morphs from bit player into key figure, and not only adds humor to the work but depth to the protagonist. My two favorites are Shakespeare’s  Falstaff and Cervantes’ Sancho Panza. Indeed, without Sancho Panza there would be no Don Quixote, and without Falstaff the Henry IV story would have needed only one play (instead of Part 1 and Part 2) and, alas, there would have been no Merry Wives of Windsor, where Falstaff has the starring role.

While this breed of character is somewhat rare, there are certainly others out there—in books, TV shows, and movies. This list includes Seinfeld’s Kramer, Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman, and Jeeves of the P.G. Wodehouse Bertie Wooster novels. Think of how you smile when one of those characters suddenly appears—or, in Kramer’s case, suddenly slides into the room.

The joy that a cage-free character gives to the reader, however, can’t compare to the joy (and occasionally the fear) an author experiences when one of those characters suddenly takes on a life of its own and yanks the story in a different direction.

That’s what happened to me about a third of the way into my first Rachel Gold novel with the appearance of Rachel’s best friend: the brilliant, fat, crude, and hilarious Benny Goldberg. They met as junior associates in the huge Chicago law firm of Abbott & Windsor. Rachel left the firm to open her own office as Rachel Gold, Attorney at Law. Benny was still at Abbott & Windsor in the first novel but soon left to become a professor of law at DePaul. Rachel later moved to St. Louis to be closer to her mother after her father died and Benny moved a few months later, accepting a faculty position at the Washington University School of Law.

And even now, as a tenured professor and a noted antitrust expert, Benny Goldberg remains the Benny that Rachel adores—as exemplified by their lunch meeting at a Vietnamese restaurant early on in BAD TRUST, when Rachel asks him,

“Are you going to class dressed like that?”

“Moi?” He leaned back in his chair and gestured at his outfit. “What’s wrong with this, Miss Fashion Cop?”

Benny had on a New York Rangers hockey jersey, faded olive cargo pants, and red Converse Chuck Taylor All Star low tops. His shaggy Jew-fro had reached Jimi Hendrix proportions, and he apparently hadn’t shaved that morning. Not quite the prevailing image for an esteemed legal scholar.

I shook my head. “All I can say is thank God for tenure.”

“Here, here” He grinned and raised his bottle of Tsingtao beer.

Benny Goldberg has long since taken on a life of his own. One example: I was working late one night at the kitchen table on one of my novels when my wife Margi, in her pajamas, poked her head into the kitchen to ask what was so funny. Apparently, she’d heard my laughter from the bedroom.

I turned to her with a big grin. “You won’t believe what Benny just said.”

She gave me an odd look as she cautiously backed out of the kitchen. “Good night, dear” was all she said.

Over the years a few other cage-free characters have unexpectedly appeared in my Rachel Gold series, but Benny Goldberg remains my favorite.

— Michael Kahn

BAD TRUST: A Rachel Gold Mystery will be published by Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks in April

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