How to Defy Readers’ Expectations for Characters

21 Jun
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” was one of the most-read essays of the year in 2014.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us as readers, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay as a whole suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. The essay could work at the level of the broad categories  and still make its point. Yet something would be lost. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. But that’s not what Watkins is interested in writing about. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that many of us are familiar with, which means it’s a language that carries with it certain expectations.

Now, watch how Watkins moves away from those expectations, from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Once the people in the essay are allowed to participate in the discussion, they show their wit and intelligence. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. The line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” not only reveals that the speaker knows about corporate bailouts but also reveals a sense of goofball, idiosyncratic sense of humor. It complicates the portrayal of someone who is “disenfranchised,” a term that can flatten the people it describes.

Once you honor the people’s or characters’ complexity, you can begin to describe the complexity of their world:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

This is a passage that does not fit into much of the political speech we’re hearing at the moment–because it’s complex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. Use Watkins’ headline as a model: “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” Fill in the blanks: Too ___ for ____. This won’t be difficult for essay writers, but it applies to fiction writers as well. Many love stories are about characters who believe they’re too ___ to be loved or, conversely, too ____ for the person who loves them. Most fiction is driven by a sense of a character’s dissatisfaction. What is it in your story?
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: “I call us disenfranchised” and “one of those spots where.” Fill in the blanks: So-and-so calls them _____ because ___” and “It was one of those places that ___.” You’re inherently working with categories, with types of characters or places, and these types carry expectations for readers.
  3. Let the characters or people speak for themselves. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. So, let your characters/people comment on the categories you’ve just made. Imagine that they’ve just read your line from Step 2. Or, someone in the room has said something similar. How would they respond?

The goal is to create categories that are both real and that seem familiar to readers and then let your characters/people surprise you and the reader by speaking for themselves.

Good luck.

2 Responses to “How to Defy Readers’ Expectations for Characters”

  1. jenniferlockman92 August 18, 2016 at 8:02 p08 #

    Thank you for this useful article. It’s an eternal problem that people think stereotypically. You are right, in the literature this problem can be solved by reducing the author’s speeches.

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