Thursday, February 1, 2018

Giving Characters Credit

Zestful Blog Post #249

Our characters can open their own American Express accounts, but they need us to give them the credit they deserve for complexity and incomplete intelligence.

It’s impossible to know everything, so it follows that it’s impossible to acquire and apply all knowledge and all skills in all ways. We agree: There are ravines in everybody’s knowledge and skill set. But it follows that there are also odd peaks. Sometimes those peaks are unexpected. Fictional characters are the same. We learn from life.

I told my Ringling College students the following little story last term and realized I should share it here too. I was walking through a parking lot next to a marina and noticed a couple of guys struggling with a boat on a trailer. Seems they were trying to secure it properly. The guys were the dirt-baggiest, crummiest-looking, gap-toothed pair I’d seen in a while. Ragged clothes, grimy hands, greasy hair, dangling cigarettes. The pickup and trailer were a filthy, rusty mess, and the boat looked like it might have been seaworthy when Admiral Farragut was firing on New Orleans.

Something slipped with a clunk, and one guy said, “Hey! You ass, it goes the other way.”

The other guy said, “Don’t call me an ass.”

The first guy said, “I was speaking metaphorically.”

As God is my witness.

[The steely gaze, the brass buttons… what can you shout but “Farragut!”]
Too many of us, when writing characters and dialogue, oversimplify. A dirtbag kind of guy wouldn’t know the word ‘metaphorical’, let alone use it properly in a sentence, right? Yeah no, wrong. He certainly might. He might not know who Admiral Farragut was; then again he might. He might be able to calculate pinochle scores in his head, but he might waste all his money on lottery tickets. But if he does, he might not be able to bear his kids not having shoes that fit, so he starts dealing a little meth on the side, so they can wear decent sneakers. Who knows? Maybe he’s going to night school for electronics.

By the same token, a character who is smart and accomplished might not be able to chop onions properly. Might borrow money at rates only a fool would agree to. Might get a pilot’s license, then decide to keep going in the fog at low altitude because it’s only a little ways to the airstrip. Might insist on getting a prescription for antibiotics when sick with the flu.

A while back, I encountered disagreement from some writing friends as to whether a six-year-old boy would know and use the word ‘masculine’. There’s no hard rule, because it depends! If he’s heard it at home or somewhere, yeah, he certainly could know and use the word. If not, not.

Grab the freedom to let your characters be as complex and contradictory as the people you meet in life. Therein lies authenticity.

What are your experiences with this subject? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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  1. Should we, as writers, always let our characters be stereotypes? Or can they show flashes of personality that makes them a little more, a little different, a little less than a stereotype. The characters I write about always seem to do what I thought they should do - and for the most part, the way my readers would expect them. But the people I meet in everyday life are unknowns to me. I can't say how they might react to a situation or what they might know until they show me. My characters need to show me who they are. But now, having read this blog, I think they might be more willing to do the unexpected.

    1. That's a good insight re: stereotypes, Dave. It's fun to buck expectations!

  2. This topic reminds me of a scene in the movie Swingers. Favreau's character asks the Vegas diner waitress if he can have his omelet in "the age of enlightenment" because the menu says "Breakfast Served Anytime". He immediately feels that he has offended her because how would a diner waitress get this obscure French philosophical reference? When she walks by again and he tries to get her attention, she says "hang on, Voltaire." It makes for such a classic moment.

    1. Exactly. That's the very same theme, or element of human interaction. Great to see you here, honey!

  3. This is probably one of the best posts I have read in a while. I am about to take my first run at my novel. I have been wanting to find a unique detail. Nothing major, just something that would make my main character unique and stand out from the crowd of the other detectives in the genre.

    So reading this is really giving me food for thought. You are right, our characters need to be as complex and contradictory as we can make them!

    1. Ingrid, yeah, go for it! You're in a good place with this. Glad the post helped a bit.


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