Almost every writer will have this experience: you’re sitting in workshop, listening to comments about your story, and someone says, “That part where ____? I just don’t get it. Why’d she do that? It makes no sense.” Maybe the workshopper will add, “I don’t know a single person who would do that.” Everyone will nod, some grudgingly. The worst part is that they’re right. Your character’s choice makes no sense. And yet that doesn’t you should revise that choice out of the story. Many great works of fiction are about characters doing things that are totally illogical—but they make sense in the story.
So how do you make an illogical choice make sense or at least keep the reader from thinking it doesn’t make sense? An almost-textbook example of this problem can be found in Laura Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” The story is creepy and unsettling and great—and it also features a character doing something that doesn’t make sense. Certainly, nobody you know would make the same choice. How does she pull it off? The story was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The story is about a woman who has an affair—but not just any affair. She sleeps with the home exterminator, a man described this way:
You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom-mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt.
But, of course, marital affairs are often the result of unhappiness in the marriage. In those situations, who knows who you’ll sleep with, right? But this narrator isn’t unhappy. Instead, she fled her “cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man.” Her children are beautiful, and her husband is a good father and good in bed (“Even our sex was aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event”). In other words, there is absolutely no reason for her to sleep with the Bug Man. Yet she does. It’s illogical. So why don’t we stop reading?
The reason that readers identify acts or choices as illogical is because they’re applying an agreed-upon logic. For instance, most of us would agree with this statement: Attractive, happy women with attractive children and an attractive, good husband do not sleep with unattractive random strangers. This logic may be problematic (judging people on appearances usually is), but it’s one that we believe on some level. As a result, in order to make the reader accept the illogical act, the story must introduce a new logic.
The most obvious way to introduce this logic would be to use a psychological disorder—if the narrator is a sex addict, for instance, then we change our expectations of her behavior. Another common way to change a story’s logic is to introduce an impactful event from the past. (This is what Aimee Bender did in her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own: after the character’s father becomes ill, she begins quitting things and compulsively knocking on wood.) But Benedict uses neither of these strategies in “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”
Instead, she introduces an obsession. It begins logically. In fact, it’s not really an obsession at first, only a fact:
It didn’t seem fair that there should be so many spiders in one house. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders (sure they’re a kind of cricket, but just take a look at one and tell me you don’t think, that’s the ugliest spider I’ve ever seen), orb spiders, brown recluse spiders. If I turned a lamp on in a dark room, I didn’t have to wait long to notice one fleeing for the threshold, or crouching motionless in the light, playing dead.
Any rationale person could become unnerved by a spider infestation (in Texas, we have cockroaches, and when they scuttle across the wall at night and drop onto your pillow, it’s hard to go back to sleep). Any rationale person might become a bit obsessed:
Oh, yes, I saw them. I heard them, too, as I lay in bed at night beside my husband, Robert. Robert pretended not to hear, but I’m not ashamed to say I heard them knocking softly, messaging each other.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, I am here.”
And when you become obsessed with something that deserves your undivided attention (like spiders), it’s perfectly logical to start focusing on it to an unhealthy degree:
Fact: you are never any farther than three feet from a spider. Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory. Fact: You’ll rarely see a female brown recluse unless you rip into walls and crevices. They hide like reluctant royalty, hatching their young away from the light. Fact: Those are males crawling out of the guest bedroom pillow or the electric socket. There’s something about cardboard boxes that attracts them too, like perfect camouflage, their compact, angular bodies and bent legs gliding across the boxes’ bone-dry walls as though the walls were made of ice. Fact: Spiders have no capacity for vocal sound. Thus, the knocking. Not many spiders can communicate this way, but some do.
Look at what Benedict has done. She’s introduced a house with a common problem (spider infestation) and changed the logic of the story so that it makes sense to learn minutia about spiders. Once that new logic has been set, it makes sense (or at least seems less illogical) to make a statement like this:
I know these are Facts because the Bug Man whispers them to me when I’m in his embrace.
I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.
It’s a purely illogical statement that the reader has been given freedom to believe. It’s not a case of temporarily setting aside logic (the fictive dream) so much as introducing a new kind of logic. If you read the story, you’ll find out that an even crazier, creepier twist lies in store.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s set up an illogical character choice using “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict as a model:
- Identify the illogical character choice. Odds are, you already know what this is. It’s probably the reason the story has screeched to a halt. Either someone read the draft and said, “Nope. Don’t believe it,” or you read your own story and could not figure out how to make it work. So, make sure you know what illogical thing is happening in your draft.
- Explain why it’s illogical. If you do want to make it work (rather than changing the choice the character makes), you need to not only write down the choice but also the reasons why it doesn’t make sense. In Benedict’s case, the narrator’s choice to sleep with an unattractive stranger doesn’t make sense because the narrator has it all: looks, youth, an attractive husband who is a good father, and beautiful kids. It’s possible that in the story you’ll need to come out and state these things outright. Benedict does this after she’s dropped the bomb about loving the Bug Man. The next four paragraphs describe the reasons her choice is crazy, which means that she’s not crazy, or at least it gives the reader permission to keep reading. The old saw about crazy people not knowing they’re crazy basically holds true for fictional characters as well.
- Find a way to introduce the choice. You can hint at the illogical choice from the beginning (as Benedict does, as Nabokov did in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”). But, to make it believable, you need to also introduce an alternative way of thinking that leads to the choice. Nabokov did this with the line, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” and the story of early love that follows. Benedict does this by introducing the spiders and the very rationale freaking out and obsessing that results. So, find something real and practical to hang your odd thoughts on: spiders, a lover, something that exists in every world. Then, give the character a reason to think about this thing a lot (infestation, love).
- Introduce an obsession. After you’ve got a character thinking about something a lot, it’s not hard to put those thoughts into full-blown obsession. You don’t really even need to explain the shift. It can just happen, as it does in Benedict’s story. The narrator moves from hearing spiders to listing a litany of facts about them. So, give your character a chance to demonstrate some specialized knowledge in the subject. We do this with love stories (and real-life love) all of the time; we know every last detail about the object of our affection or the object of our character’s affections. Love, of course, is not unlike obsession. So, treat the object at the center of your character’s obsession as if he/she loves it. Go into loving detail.
- Return to, or introduce, the illogical choice. People who are obsessed do not behave rationally. If you can convince the readers of the obsession, it’s only another short step to convince them of the choice. Or, to be more accurate, the choice will flash by them and they won’t notice; it will fit in with the obsession.
You may find that you need to arrange and rearrange these elements of introducing an illogical choice. The thing to remember is that you’re setting up the choice by creating a mindset—and the sneakiest way to create a mindset is to make it initially focused on something logical. Once it becomes obsession, then you push it into the bounds of what is normally illogical.
Good luck and have fun!