Tag Archives: character development

Give Readers a Sneak Peak at the Wild Action to Come

18 Jul

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

As a novelist, you will one day inevitably be required to write a query letter or pitch an agent in person, and you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get straight to whatever element of your story can fascinate and intrigue in a sentence or two. It’s an instructive experience because it reminds you about the power of story and what makes people pick up a book in the first place. But you’ll also quickly learn that a great pitch or query is not necessarily accompanied by a great novel. Or, the skills for one are not the skills for the other. Even a novel with the most amazing concept and premise in the world needs to build compelling, rich characters within that premise.

A great example of character building in a novel with a wild premise is The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. You can read an excerpt from the novel at Tor.com.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a futuristic South Africa, where personal robots called alphies tend to their owners and the government harnesses technological advances to raise the standard of living. We follow six different characters as this world starts to come apart. We’re introduced to one of them, Sidney Mazwai, in this scene. She works at a nail salon, and one of her wealthiest clients has walked in, preparing for a fundraiser for a politician whose family her own has known for centuries.

“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.

By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”

In this scene, we’re introduced to various aspects of Sidney’s life and personality. She’s on the bottom end of a class and colonial divide, she can create a facade that hides the resentment she feels over this divide, she has magical powers, and those powers take a physical toll on her when used.

Now, imagine how else those aspects of her character could have been revealed. We learn, not long after this scene, that Sydney’s powers extend far beyond cuticle manipulation. She is, in fact, the “ancient demigoddess hell-bent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters” mentioned on the novel’s back cover. But you wouldn’t know that from this passage. Instead of devouring the woman, she does her nails. It’s the opposite of what you’d talk about in a query letter or pitch. But it’s essential to building the novel.

Novels require pacing, whereas pitches do not. A novel must build up to its wildest moments, and the distance between the mundane and the wild also creates mystery: how are the mundane and wild connected in this one character?

It might be tempting to cut out mundane elements of your story, but a novel without quotidian scenes won’t work. The key is to hint at the wild stuff in the middle of the mundane, which is what Drayden does in this nail salon scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hint at the wildest parts of our story, using The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden as a model:

  1. Identify the wild part of your story and locate it in a character. This applies even if your character isn’t magic, like Drayden’s. Every novel has a dramatic scene in which a character acts out of passion and desire. The nature of the act will vary, depending on the novel, but it’s there. It’s probably what led you to write the novel in the first place. So, know what it is and make it something that exists internally in the character. Don’t rely exclusively on external events to drive the action; it will lead to a boring character whose actions feel unconvincing. In other words, what is your character capable of doing?
  2. Give your character a daily grind. Drayden makes Sydney go to work at a nail salon. In many novels, work often supplies this daily grind. So do family, friends, and household chores. Find something that your character does in a thoughtless, mechanical way. In itself, this helps build character because we learn what your character is dissatisfied with. But it also provides a way to surprise the reader, who will sense the character’s boredom with the act and so won’t see the wild part coming.
  3. Build hints of the wild part into the grind. This almost always takes the form of quiet rebellion. Your character pushes back against the grind (and the people who embody it) in ways that help your character (either by giving them the satisfaction of rebellion or, as in Sydney’s case, benefiting them in some tangible way). This rebellion is where you’re really crafting the character. What hints of the character’s wildness are present in that rebellion? How does she conceal it? Both the wildness and the deception will likely become essential to the character and provide building blocks as you move into the more dramatic parts of the novel.

The goal is to build a character and world with an eye toward the sort of dramatic action that might appear in a query letter or pitch.

Good luck.

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

30 Sep
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table.

In theory, this advice should be easy to follow, but I can remember my days as a MFA student when I would spin my wheels for days puzzling out which setting would be best and worrying that I was choosing the wrong one. Like most writing “rules,” the theory is easier than the application. So, how can we create setting without driving ourselves crazy?

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, was published in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “a sure bet.” The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up in a family that followed a traveling tent revival led by the preacher David Terrell. The sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear. You can read them here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliche that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliche.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

How to Create a Character Foil

23 Sep
Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, "Aviator on the Prowl."

Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, “Aviator on the Prowl.”

In high school literature classes, students are often taught about character foils—a yin-and-yang concept in which characters tend to be polar opposites of each other, as in the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” As a story device, an opposites-attract approach often works. But it isn’t the only way to develop character conflicts.

In her story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” Kalpana Narayanan creates two characters who are remarkably alike rather than different. The result is a story that won Boston Review‘s 2011 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest. The judge, Francisco Goldman, wrote that the story “makes you laugh a lot, makes you feel great affection, and breaks your heart. I have to admit, I finished it with tears in my eyes.” You can read “Aviator on the Prowl” here.

How the Story Works

There are many ways to establish a character (physical traits, social position, job), but one of the most memorable to the reader is through the character’s attitude toward the world around her. In this first paragraph of “Aviator on the Prowl,” notice how prominent the narrator’s voice is. It could have been made transparent, like a clear window for us to see the events of her past, but, instead, the voice colors our view:

That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking. Each night I came home I peeled off my shirt and pants that smelled of the juice of a thousand pigs, and I stood outside my room. My brother Aalap had hanged there the year before, the starched, yellow fold of his karate-class belt rounding his neck like a scarf. I’d been at college, and my mother had made it clear it was the belt and not her own strangle that had writhed small Aalap purple. You could still see the hole where the nail had been. It was just above my bedroom door and everyone had remembered everything but no one had remembered it.

This is a tough, jaded narrator. Her brother has committed suicide, and she’s developed a kind of emotional scab over her still-raw feelings about his death. This attitude becomes clear as she’s put into an interaction with her mother:

My mother said it wasn’t nice how I stripped outside my room like that, that my father might see my triangle bra and shriveled-up breasts and then what. (Buchu, put your breasts back in your buttons!) I said maybe you shouldn’t stick your sad face in my business like that or maybe I just said it in my head.

This clear attitude makes it easier to create a foil for the narrator; the usual way would produce a character who has an opposite attitude toward life, a sort of bleeding heart. But Narayanan does the complete opposite and creates a character who shares the narrator’s combative attitude—and shares it in an exaggerated way. The character is her boss at the restaurant where she works. The similarity of their attitudes becomes clear as soon as he’s introduced:

I told an Asian girl that came in the restaurant our beer was from Japan. My boss screamed I was a humiliation, that it was from Okinawa and if I didn’t get it straight he’d really do something bad. I told the girl it was from Okinawa and gave her the bottle for free. She mouthed an apology when my boss wasn’t looking, but I didn’t care.

The story wastes no time before the boss’s attitude is applied to the central event of the narrator’s life: her brother’s suicide. In this scene, the narrator has come into work even though it’s her off day. She likes working in the kitchen, and so she helps the sous-chef cut some garlic. But, she does it badly, and her boss notices and digs the cut ends out of the trash:

His hand opened to show the end of the bulb I’d just tossed. His fingers rolled the end like mucus then threw it at my face. I twitched.

I don’t fucking care who’s dead and who’s not, he continued, if you waste my money like this again you’re out.

In a way, the story has taken the narrator’s tough attitude toward her brother’s death and, through the character of her boss, exaggerated it into a grotesque version of itself. It becomes a kind of contest between the character’s: how desensitized can they become? As you read the rest of the story, you’ll see how Narayanan steers this contest in a surprising direction and how the final scene offers a release from this contest of wills.

By creating this particular character foil—two characters who are similar rather than opposites—Narayanan creates a framework in which the story’s emotional tension (how does she grieve her brother’s death) can play out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character foil using “Aviator on the Prowl” by Kalpana Narayanan as a model:

  1. Create a character and a problem that will not go away quickly. The character can be anyone, but the problem should be persistent, as opposed to one that can be solved with a decision (to leave or stay, to take this job or that one). A problem like this tends to be in the background of everything else in the character’s life. So, think about big issues: love, death, or existential dilemmas (what kind of person am I?).
  2. Clearly define the character’s attitude toward that problem. If you’ve ever listened to people talk about themselves in the midst of a significant difficulty (death of a loved one, career change, big move, or some other dramatic life transition), you’ve likely noticed that the stories they tell often change, depending on how they’re feeling about the situation. In other words, we tell ourselves stories that support our basic view of the world and ourselves. So, think about the character’s attitude as a thing he or she has created. How has the character chosen to approach the problem that won’t go away?
  3. Create a second character, one whom the first character cannot avoid. Our lives are full of such people: bosses, coworkers, spouses, children, parents, neighbors, and friends. Particular situations also bring unavoidable people into our lives. If the toilet is backed up, you’re stuck with a plumber. If a storm has blown a tree over onto your house, you’re stuck with a contractor and team of workers. Hospitals have doctors and nurses. Schools have teachers and administrators. In short, think about your character’s situation and choose a character who is an inevitable part of it.
  4. Give this new character the same attitude as the first character. You don’t need to know why the character has this attitude, only that it exists. So, if your first character is tough, make this new character tougher. If your first character is highly rational, make the new character even more logical. Once you know the attitude, you can find ways for it to be expressed. Be practical. If the new character is a nurse who copes with all difficulty with laughter, there will be plenty of difficulties in a nurse’s routine to prompt that laughter.
  5. Find opportunities for these attitudes to collide. You have already created characters who cannot avoid each other. Now, create scenes that force them onto different sides of a problem. Both characters will address the problem in the same way, and that similar approach may produce conflict.

Good luck!

How to Make Characters Uncomfortable

16 Sep
Ted Thompson's novel, The Land of Steady habits, has earned comparisons to Richard Yates and John Updike.

Ted Thompson’s novel, The Land of Steady Habits, has earned comparisons to Richard Yates and John Updike.

Fiction should not be nice to its characters. As soon as a character reveals some preference (I like this but hate that), the story has an obligation to force the character into that hated thing. It’s a tried and true strategy that can produce some of the best moments in a story, regardless of genre (remember snake-fearing Indiana Jones facing a pit of snakes?). So, how do you set up a situation in which a character must face the thing he or she detests most?

Ted Thompson begins his novel The Land of Steady Habits with exactly this kind of moment. The novel was published by Hatchette Book Group, and you can read the opening chapter at Hatchette’s website.

How the Story Works

The first line of the novel establishes the hated thing:

One of the great advantages of Anders’s divorce—besides, of course, the end of the squabbling, and the sudden guiltless thrill of freedom—was that he no longer had to attend the Ashbys’ holiday party. The party, like all the parties he’d attended in his marriage, was his wife’s domain, and he was relieved to no longer have to show up only to be a disappointment to her friends.

The novel wastes no time forcing Anders to confront the thing he thought he’d left behind: “a card arrived from the Ashbys, as if with the season, inviting him once again to their holiday party.”

Of course, the invitation shouldn’t matter. Anders should simply toss it in the trash—the advantage of divorce. This seems to be his plan, and at first he treats it as curiosity—”the only invitation he’d received”—and tries “to decide if it was a peace offering of if they’d simply forgotten to take him off their list.”

But there’s a complication. As part of the divorce agreement, Anders agreed to give his wife the house (with its expensive mortgage), but he can’t afford to retire on what remains of their wealth and has, out of necessity and spite, quit paying the mortgage. The problem with this solution becomes clear with a second piece of mail: a note from his wife’s lawyers also comes in the mail that makes clear that he has “until the end of the year before the bank brought in a judge.”

To solve this problem, Anders must talk with his ex-wife—and that is why he decided to attend the party.

Thus, in the span of only a couple of pages, the novel creates a situation that Anders should absolutely avoid and a reason for him to necessarily confront it. As one might expect, his appearance begins uncomfortably and ends with disaster.

Side note: This novel was recently optioned by director Nicole Holofcener, whose films (Please GiveFriends with MoneyEnough Said) excel at putting characters into uncomfortable situations. When you read the opening chapter of Thompson’s novel, its appeal to a filmmaker will make a lot of sense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a character into an uncomfortable situation using the excerpt from The Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson as a model:

  1. Create a character and a reasonable dislike/hatred. You might actually use Thompson’s first line as a model: “One of the great pleasures of _____ was that he/she no longer had to ______.” Life is full of situations like this. Parents look forward to no longer changing diapers, people in apartments look forward to no longer carrying groceries up flights of stairs, people who’ve changed jobs look forward to no longer commuting or sitting next to So-and-so. And, of course, most of us know what it’s like to expect that something is over—and then it isn’t. So, imagine what life change your character has recently gone through and the annoying things this change has left behind.
  2. Create an opportunity to encounter that dislike. Thompson uses an invitation in the mail, which is, in a larger sense, a visit from somebody he used to know but now no longer encounters. So, imagine all the ways that your character’s dislike could return in the form of an unexpected encounter: running into someone in the grocery store, an event (wedding, funeral, graduation) that forces them together, a merger at work. We like to believe that the world is large and that we can make our own place in it, but the truth is that our places overlap more than we often acknowledge. How can you make your character’s worlds overlap in order to bring him/her into an encounter with some unpleasant thing that has been left behind?
  3. Create a reason for the character to seek out that encounter. Thompson gives his character no choice, really, but to attend the party (Anders has quit paying the mortgage on the house that his wife won in the divorce, and he needs to explain himself). As Thompson demonstrates, a good way to force a character’s hand is to make him/her do something that will have negative consequences. So, imagine an act that your character could commit that would force him/her to face some unpleasantness that has been left behind. Or, imagine a circumstance that is beyond the character’s control (layoffs, illness) that could turn the character back to a place that’s been left behind. The result will likely be a scene that the character wants desperately to avoid but has no choice but to enter.

Have fun!

How to Set Up Illogical Character Choices

5 Aug
Laura Benedict's story "When I Make Love to the Bug Man" was published in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s story “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

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.

And this:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

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