There wasn’t a real story when the first Penn, Just Relax, debuted at the Tonner convention in 2015. The first regular line Penn, Business Day, had a brief origin story. He was involved with the police department as a “big brother” to a troubled adolescent, the pyromaniac Freddy Wilde. Now, the poem that came with Business Day didn’t mention his actual job or volunteer work. Instead, there was a lot made of Ellowyne gushing that Penn was older than her friends, was so handsome, and that he looked as good in a suit as in jeans. Ellowyne sounds utterly shallow and vapid. That’s not the Ellowyne I love. Penn appeared in one of Ellowyne’s final journal entries, in which she wrote about him stopping by on Halloween, her grandmother suggesting he join the party but insisted he wear a mask. Amber tramped into the house and, mistaking Penn for Rufus, she grabbed him, kissed him, and slapped him for kissing her.
Since I’m not keen on the canonical stories about Penn, I decided to create my own. And, truth be told, Penn is now one of my favorite characters in the line. I started with the age factor. Ellowyne and her friends are usually college or graduate students in their early 20s. Penn is four years older than they are but he has started college at the same time. The reason for that is…
Penn is a war veteran. After he graduated from high school, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he joined the Army and became a medic. He has deployed to Afghanistan three, maybe four times. The doctors, nurses, and his chaplain encouraged him to go to nursing school. Why nursing? I am a registered nurse, no longer working due to health reasons. I have known many remarkable men who were nurses. Most of them became nurses because they had been medics or corpsmen in the military. The strength and integrity of these men I have been privileged to teach, work with, and know inspired me to create a character who epitomizes these traits as an homage to those men. Additionally, Penn embodies the post-9/11 wartime experience. He becomes an adrenaline junkie, a thrill-seeker who feels most alive when surrounded by chaos. Penn’s risk-taking impacts his career in that he works in the ER and eventually wants to become a nurse practitioner on a medivac helicopter. Sometimes he works in Intensive Care and plans to become a nurse anesthetist. Sadly, Penn suffers from PTSD, just like someone I love. My husband is a retired Army National Guard chaplain, and over the course of a 28-year career, has deployed in Operation Desert Storm, a peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. His PTSD, which resulted from his time in Iraq, has decreased over time, but he still struggles. It grieves me to see a gentle man explode in a rage because of PTSD. Writing about Penn’s experiences helps me understand my husband’s.
Now that we’ve established who Penn is at the core of his identity, let’s look at some of Penn’s other characteristics. He’s an outgoing man—quite charismatic– with the temperament of a Labrador retriever puppy. He is a risk-taker and an adventurer, often to the chagrin of his friends who try desperately to keep up with him. He is athletic. In middle school, he started studying martial arts, and he was on the football, wrestling, and rugby teams in high school. When he was in the Army, he became interested in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting. Penn runs, works out in the student fitness center, and occasionally participates in hot yoga with Prudence. Sometimes Penn chides Rufus for getting “a little doughy in the middle” in an effort to get him to run or lift weights.
Some of Penn’s relationships are complicated. However, two of his friendships are solid and unproblematic. His most straightforward relationship is with his best friend, Rufus. Penn introduces Rufus to some of the finer things in life, like craft beer, poutine, and hockey games. In turn, Rufus tutors Penn in statistics, a subject that Penn doesn’t understand and loathes. The guys like to prank each other, and each one tries to make the other laugh so hard that the beverage he’s drinking spurts out of his nose.
Penn’s connection with Ellowyne is also uncomplicated. Naturally, he finds her attractive, but when he realizes that Rufus is hopelessly devoted to her, he decides not to pursue her. He simply is not the kind of man who would poach his best friend’s crush. As a nursing student, Penn made friends with many of his classmates, most of them women. So Penn having a platonic relationship with Ellowyne is conceivable and reasonable.
But here’s where things get convoluted. Penn is a lady’s man. He loves getting female attention. He is a busy fellow with work and/or school, so he doesn’t have time for a committed relationship. However, he makes time for casual dating and occasional hookups. Often, he dates other nursing students, but he also goes out with Prudence, Lizette, Neema, and Amber. Each woman he dates—or hooks up with—knows that Penn dates other girls but doesn’t know who they are. He has sworn each one to secrecy so they can’t compare notes. And that’s no typo. Penn sometimes dates Amber. After she finally learns that she can’t kiss and slap guys, she and Penn make amends. Sometimes Penn and Amber are friends with benefits. Occasionally he thinks he wants a serious, exclusive commitment but Amber, the most likely candidate, isn’t ready.
There’s one piece of information that was missing from the official canon. What is Penn’s last name? Is he like Cher, Madonna, Bono, or Prince and simply doesn’t need one? In lieu of a real surname, I’ve chosen some of my own. And those last names are subject to change, depending on the role Penn has played in my stories. Sometimes the surname is just funny like State or a vile pun like Penn N. Teller. Every so often, Penn’s last name is Wilde because he is Ellowyne’s cousin or brother. In one of the stories rattling around in my brain, Penn and Ellowyne are twins!
I wasn’t fond of Penn at first, but now that I have given him a whole new story line, he has quickly become a favorite character. I hope he will be one of yours, too!