There are characters, and then there are characters. Sometimes you read a book and can’t keep the protagonist’s name straight let alone his personality or motivations. Other times you read a few lines, a paragraph or two, a half a page, and the lead character jumps out of the book, slams into your chest, and walks beside you for a long, long while.
I prefer the latter type of character. Josiah Wolfe is one of those characters. He walks beside me. I don’t care if that sounds over-stated or cheesy. It’s personal and I mean it sincerely.
I’ve spoken with Larry D. Sweazy, Wolfe’s creator, a number of times here at Booklife. We’ve talked about setting, freelancing, story, and character. Whatever the topic, our conversations always seem to come back to character.
For me, our conversations stem from a single moment standing in the local Barnes and Noble, a split second when Josiah Wolfe came alive while I read the prologue to The Rattlesnake Season, Sweazy’s first novel.
The Badger’s Revenge, the third installment in the Josiah Wolfe series, hits shelves today. I used the release as an excuse to get back in touch with Sweazy. What follows are his responses to a series of questions about building the character Josiah Wolfe. It’s that, and it’s also a master class on characterization from one of the finest novelists working today.
Where did Josiah Wolfe come from?
Larry D. Sweazy: This is kind of a long story, but I guess it should be. In 2003, I was contacted by Ed Gorman to write a short story for an anthology featuring a modern-day Texas Ranger with a mystery plot. I had lived in Texas for nearly 5 years, and I felt confident that I could tackle the assignment, and since I was writing mostly mysteries at the time, it felt like a natural fit for me. The story, “The Promotion,” was about Samuel “Red” Wolfe, who worked for the UCIT (Unsolved Crimes Investigation Time) unit, and had recently lost his son, but got offered a promotion that would take him to another city. Red wanted to solve a cold case that had been a rub with him for several years, before he left.
Ed bought the story, and it was published in the anthology, Texas Rangers (Berkley), in 2004. That was my professional short story sale. Up until then, I had just published in small press and semi-pro magazines. “The Promotion” went on to win the WWA (Western Writers of America) Spur Award for Best Short Story in 2005. I was flabbergasted, humbled, and honored, to say the least. After that settled down, and it was time for me to get back writing, I began to think about the direction I wanted to go. My first thought was to continue writing Red, to turn “The Promotion” into a novel, but that didn’t happen, and has yet to come to fruition, though it still remains a possibility if I ever get to it.
Anyway, I began to think about the Texas Rangers, and their history, and I decided I wanted to go back to the beginning of the organization—which took me to the Frontier Battalion. There were Rangers before then, but the Frontier Battalion is considered the “official” beginning, the bloodline of the Ranger organization we have today. So, I asked myself a writer’s what if question: What if there had been a Wolfe in every generation of the Texas Rangers from the Frontier Battalion to the present? That would be at least five generations of stories to cover, and with the history of Texas being so rich, the material would be endless. So, Josiah was born from that one idea. He is Red Wolfe’s great-great grandfather. At that moment, I envisioned a complete generational saga. It’s a viable idea, I think, and I’m happy to report that I’m currently writing a short story for another anthology featuring Josiah’s son, Lyle, that takes place in the 1930s, in the Bonnie and Clyde era of Texas.
How much pre-writing did you do with him?
Larry D. Sweazy: I initially wrote a short story, “Rattlesnakes and Skunks,” that featured Josiah Wolfe to try my hand at writing him. I eventually sold that story to a short-lived magazine, Out West. So, I would say the pre-writing came in the form of another short story. It seems to work that way for me. The prologue of the first Josiah novel, The Rattlesnake Season, is basically the beginning of “Rattlesnakes and Skunks”, and the title was born from the story, too.
How much growing did/does Wolfe do on his own?
Larry D. Sweazy: When I sold the first two books, I thought I had a pretty good idea who Josiah was, but about halfway through the first book situations arose that I hadn’t seen going in, so there was definitely some changes I didn’t expect.
In The Rattlesnake Season, there’s a poignant scene where Josiah must decide to confront his past and let go of it the best he can by having an intimate encounter with a woman that there is no possibility of ever having a real relationship with. He had to learn how to live again, to feel pleasure again, instead of the pain of losing his wife and daughters. I hadn’t expected that kind of emotional reaction from him, but I think it’s the heart of the book.
How has he grown over the course of the series?
Larry D. Sweazy: I think each book sees some kind if growth from Josiah, at least, I hope so. The Rattlesnake Season saw Josiah join the Rangers, confronting an old enemy, and moving to a new city, Austin, to start a new life.
The second book, The Scorpion Trail, is about Josiah’s life on the trail with the Rangers, learning his place in the world, and who he can trust, and who he can’t. I think trust is a big part of book #2, especially between Josiah and Scrap Elliot, his partner, it seems in nearly every adventure.
In the new book, The Badger’s Revenge, Josiah is still not settled in Austin, but he tries to navigate the social scene, and his own idea of whether love is possible for him, especially with a woman who seems to be of a higher class than him. I hope every book shows some emotional growth in Josiah, but they also have to stand up as westerns, too, so there’s plenty action thrown into the mix that forces Josiah to learn as much about himself as a Ranger as living in the city does.
And in what ways is he shaped by the loss of his wife in the first book?
Larry D. Sweazy: I definitely think Josiah is devoted to the memory his wife, and he struggles with his needs as a man, and as a father for his son, Lyle. He knows Lyle needs a real mother instead of, or along with, the wet nurse, Ofelia who came to Austin with him, but he can’t bring himself to truly commit to any kind of relationship, fearing nothing but loss and tragedy will come of it. Who could blame him? I think that fear, especially of the fear of losing Lyle somehow, drives Josiah to do things he would not ordinarily do. Healing comes with time, and new people continually come and go in his life, giving Josiah the opportunity to love and trust again. Whether he does or not, is the challenge he continually faces.
How is Wolfe different now, at the outset of The Badger’s Revenge? What will always remain the same?
Larry D. Sweazy: The longer he stays in Austin, the more rooted he becomes. In the beginning of The Badger’s Revenge, Josiah is captured by two Comanche bounty hunters, and must escape to see his way home again. It’s a fight he’s up for, by this time in his life. He is solely focused on seeing Lyle again, and will not let anything step in his way. If that means shooting first, and asking questions later, then so be it.
As far as staying the same, I think Josiah’s moral center, his idea of right and wrong will never change. Money, fame, or social standing do not interest him, but he knows if he’s going to stay in Austin, he needs to learn to navigate the social and political structures, so he’s not so rigid that he’s unwilling to learn, to change. He’s a survivor in the end, and that can’t ever change.
Any last words of advice on building characters in general and western characters in particular?
Larry D. Sweazy: Perfect characters are boring. Josiah might be the hero in each book, but he also has baggage that determines how he is going to react in certain situations. He spent four years fighting in the Civil War, and then had some hard-scrabble years before he lost his family to sickness. He’s angry, and sometimes, that anger rages out of his control, causing him to do and say things he regrets later. That makes him human, as far as I’m concerned.
Western characters tend to be motivated by the landscape and their circumstances in it, which are all great places to start. A rancher in a drought will act or react out of desperation. But there are human needs to; love, respect, satisfaction, or disappointment, so all aspects of a character’s life should play a role in the characters life, if he or she is fully rounded. I really don’t see the creation of a character for a western any different than any other genre. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then they will never finish reading the novel. It’s just that simple, no matter whether the story is set ten minutes ago, or a hundred and fifty years ago.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.