There are two ways of thinking about personality. In one, personality is a coherent thing that allows us to make definitive statements about someone, like, “He’s a bitter person” or “She always undermines her own happiness” or “She just makes you feel good about life.” In the other view, personality is sliced up, and so a person can be bitter at times, happy at times, and can be both cruel and loving. In this version, you might say to someone, “He’s such a jerk,” and have that person say, in response, “But he’s always been so nice when I’m around.”
Contradictory and seemingly mysterious behavior can be fodder for great writing, and nowhere is this more true than in Herpreet Singh’s essay, “Choking Out the Natives.” It was published at The Bitter Southerner, where you can read it now.
How the Essay Works
The essay begin with a description of Singh’s father-in-law, introduced this way:
When I started dating Chris, a friend asked, and then many friends asked, bemused, “Do you know he’s Honest Abe’s son?”
Honest Abe, as it turns out, is both a person and a character. He owns a tire shop, and his commercials, in which he starts, are famous in his hometown. We’re given a glimpse of several:
Him, slim and 6 feet 2 inches, a workhorse of a man, wearing gigantic prosthetic ears, shouting to the camera, “Hi, folks! Honest Abe ear — I mean here! I still have WAY too much inventory. I’m not kiddin. HELP! I HAVE A WHOLE BUNCHA TIRES COMIN OUT MY EARS!”
We learn something else about Abe, too:
He is also the man who legally adopted and raised Chris with Chris’s biological mother when Chris was 2 or 3, not that Chris has ever thought of any other person as his dad.
This early portrait of Abe is funny and sympathetic. We like the guy, in part because he’s impossible not to like, a colorful local celebrity, the stuff of great Southern writing. But, of course, it’s not enough to drive an essay. What makes this essay so good is what else we learn about Honest Abe. I won’t spoil it for you, but when it arrives on the page, it’s stunning. (Read it here.)
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write a multifaceted character using “Choking Out the Natives” by Herpreet Singh as a model:
- Identify the overriding trait of the character’s personality. This works, incidentally, for fictional and nonfictional characters. For either, think about the character in terms of your emotional reaction. Sure, we can say that somebody is a good person, but if we get incensed thinking about them, then their overriding trait, for us anyway, is something other than goodness. For example, Singh makes her emotional reaction to her father-in-law clear later in the essay, and it’s probably that reaction that prompted the essay. Sum up that trait in a sentence or two.
- Identify other traits. Again, follow the emotion—but this time, follow someone else’s emotional reaction. Singh does this at the beginning of the essay, when a friend asks, “Do you know he’s Honest Abe’s son?” For the friend, Honest Abe is an entirely different person than he is to Singh, and her positive reaction reflects that difference. So, how would someone else view the character? Do this as many times as you need. Move through the character’s day and life: childhood and adulthood, work and at home, in public and in private. Find as many traits as you can. Sum each up in a sentence or two.
- Start with a trait that seem contradictory to your own reaction. Buy into this trait—don’t give it a half effort. Make the reader believe that this is really how the character is. Singh does this by giving examples—showing the character being the way others perceive him. You’re setting the reader up so that when another, contradictory trait (the more important trait, perhaps, or simply another trait) the reader will be surprised. The contradiction can also drive the story or essay forward as it gives the writing something to chew on: how can a person act in such different ways? That question can be unanswerable, and that’s why it’s worth writing about.
Good luck and have fun.