Unlikely Influences: What I learned about character from John Prine

This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. I’ll include some guest posts in the series too.

John Prine. Photo by Ron Baker.
John Prine. Photo by Ron Baker.

I’ve been listening to John Prine since I was a little kid, because my dad liked him. It took me a while to come around to most of the music my dad liked. But I always liked songs like “Sam Stone” and “Donald and Lydia”, long before I had any idea what the songs were about. Prine songs are disarming, even for bullheaded teenagers hellbent on their dads being wrong.

Prine can draw a memorable character in just a few words, and he dispenses with any notion of making them likable or relatable or anything else that writers try so hard to do. He just makes them real, and he has compassion for them.

Take the first lines of “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard”:

The last time that I saw her
She was standing in the rain
With her overcoat under her arm
Leaning on a horsehead cane
She said, “Carl, take all the money.”
She called everybody Carl.
“My spirit’s broke, my mind’s a joke, and getting up’s real hard.”

A less subtle writer would try to make the tragedy bigger, make the exposition more obvious, and would up the stakes. But if he did that, his details — and his characters — would lose their enormous significance. The effect of listening to a song like his “Lake Marie” — where an accident of geography joins two stories, one of a brutal murder, one of a couple in a troubled marriage camping and cooking sausages — is like standing in a wide field looking at the spinning stars.

No one’s a victim in a John Prine song, and nobody’s a hero. And everyone is responsible. “Come Back to Us…” keeps coming back to the idea of people looking at and judging Barbara, shifting from the first person to direct address and back: “The last time that I saw her,” “Don’t you know her when you see her,” “Can’t you picture her at all,”,”I have to shake myself and wonder why she even bothers me.”

This use of viewpoint is what makes “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More” a deceptively powerful anti-war song, and is a reminder to me that I should always try to get into the heads of my villains. Despite its flashes of silly humour, I think it’s a more powerful song than, say, Dylan’s “Masters of War”, which just allows the listener to feel self-righteous about Other People. Prine’s song puts us right into the viewpoint of a warmonger before we realize it. The chorus is direct-address, accusatory. But the verses are first-person, and they tell the story of how jingoism grows in the hearts of ordinary well-meaning people who just don’t think hard enough.

While digesting Reader’s Digest
In the back of a dirty book store,
A plastic flag, with gum on the back,
Fell out on the floor.
Well, I picked it up and I ran outside
Slapped it on my window shield,
And if I could see old Betsy Ross
I’d tell her how good I feel.

And then into the chorus:

But your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven any more.
They’re already overcrowded
From your dirty little war

This sort of humour used as anesthetic so you don’t notice the knife going in reminds me a bit of Terry Pratchett, who is also a master at creating characters the reader can forgive.

In live shows, I’ve heard him talk about writing “Fish and Whistle” in a fit of “guess I’d better write a song” frustration, but to my mind, it’s the song that sums up the John Prine philosophy of how people fit into the universe:

Father forgive us
For what we must do
You forgive us
And we’ll forgive you