In real life, we often fall into an “us and them” mentality and then struggle to break free from the restrictive stereotypes that inevitably result. Some of these “us and them” traps are so clear that we have names for them: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. But just because we avoid these (or try to) doesn’t mean that we don’t succumb to others, even in small ways. As the great writer Barry Hannah once told a class of students, “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like the movie Rocky and those who do not.” While this is, on its surface, a far less serious “us and them” binary than, say, racism, anyone who’s gotten involved in a heated argument about aesthetics knows that they can quickly escalate. In life, that’s bad. In fiction, though, it’s good.
A great example of using an “us and them” binary to create character and story can be found in Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s novel Everything Belongs to Us. You can read an excerpt here.
How the Novel Works
The novel follows childhood friends who are now college students in South Kora in 1978. Jisun’s father is a wealthy businessman, and Namin’s family runs a food cart. They both want to resist the dominant political system, which reinforces their inequality, but they take different approaches. Namin studies hard in order to get a good job, and Jisun pretends to be a factory worker in order to organize the workers in protests. In one of these protests, she gets arrested, but then the police realize who her father is and publicly pull her out of the jail cell and away from her fellow protesters. In this scene, she goes to visit Namin at home, and they get into an argument about how they spend their time:
“So go ahead, spend your life marching and shouting slogans,” Namin had said. “But I can’t. I need this. People rely on me, you know.”
“And you think no one relies on me?”
“Who, Jisun?” she’d said. “Who relies on you? You have no responsibilities! Everything’s always been given to you.”
Jisun had actually stamped her foot like a child throwing a tantrum, raising a low cloud of dust over the courtyard. “No responsibilities?” she’d shouted. “Who do you think I’m doing this for? Why should I work so hard when people like you don’t even appreciate it?”
“‘People like me’?” Namin had shouted, too, forgetting to keep her voice down. The neighbors could repeat this argument word for word in the market for all she cared. “‘People like me,’ you mean, who are helpless, who need big, powerful champions like you to fight their battles? Is that what you think you’re doing? Let me get this straight. Do you actually expect me to be grateful?”
The passage starts with Namin describing how Jisun spends her time, but it’s not simply a factual statement. It’s charged: “So go ahead, spend your life marching and shouting slogans.” Then they get to the heart of the matter: why they do what they do. Who they do it for. And that’s when Jisun breaks out the phrase that changes everything: “people like you.” Notice that it only appears when she’s been challenged—when her motives for something she cares about deeply enough to go to jail get challenged. The relationship has been transformed in ways that will drive the story forward.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create an “us and them” binary, using Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz as a model:
- Start with an unlikely relationship. Almost every sitcom starts with one: two or more people who are friends/family/coworkers despite seemingly unresolvable differences. In Everything Belongs to Us, the differences revolve around class. They could be anything, but in this novel, in South Korea in 1978, class is a major point of conflict. So, if you don’t yet have your characters in mind, look around the world you want to inhabit. What issues are people fighting over? What are the sides of the argument? Give each of your characters a different side.
- Put one of the characters in trouble. The scene starts after Jisun has been 1) arrested and 2) revealed as wealthy in the midst of working-class protesters. Things are not going great for her, which means it’s a great time to put her in scene. Characters (and people) who are stressed tend to act out or without thinking, which is almost requisite to create plot and tension. What sort of trouble has your character gotten into?
- Let the other character belittle that trouble. Namin’s response to the arrest is to suggest that protesting isn’t a good idea in the first place. Even worse, she does it in a condescending tone: “So go ahead, spend your life marching and shooting slogans.” It doesn’t matter if she’s right. What matters is that it makes a stressed character want to act out, which she does. So, how can you use tone and dialogue to allow one character to diminish another character’s situation?
- Break out the binary. Jisun says, “People like you.” She could have added, “The trouble with…” and it would have fit perfectly. So, try this. Let the character whose trouble has been belittled respond with a statement that begins with “The trouble with people like you…” What does “people like you” mean in the particular circumstances of your story? It’s a statement that automatically leads to conflict. No one ever gets confronted with “people like you” and shrugs it off. Those are fighting words, so let them fight and reveal the tensions that inherently exist between the characters.
The goal is to create tension and story by putting one character in trouble and having another character challenge and belittle that trouble.