Tag Archives: creating tension

How to Create “People Like You”

28 Mar

Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel, Everything Belongs to Us, was called “a Gatsby-esque takedown, full of memorable characters” by the New York Times Book Review.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Good luck.

Advertisements

Create an Emotional Backdrop for Your Characters

6 Sep
Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice” and a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. A review in The Washington Post said, “You won’t put this story down… Pittard is operating at a level few writers attain.” You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a married couple, Mark and Maggie, who take a trip to visit his parents in the midst of some marital strife. It begins as they get ready to leave and focuses on the small things that must be done: taking out the trash, walking the dog, packing the car. The chores, of course, are also the sort of things unhappy couples argue about, and so each one provides an opportunity for either Mark or Maggie to think about their partner’s failings. One of those internal monologues goes like this:

Maggie had an excuse for her behavior, but it was getting old. It was getting old in part because she’d been getting better. The symptoms now felt disproportionate to the cause. Like, for instance, Patricia Hatchett, who was also in the History Department, had lost a baby last year, and Mark wasn’t the only one to notice that she looked better these days than ever. He’d heard she was considering a run for chair, for Christ’s sake. It embarrassed Mark that his wife had become a completely different person just because she’d been mugged. Strike that—because someone they didn’t even know had been murdered. But what was becoming more and more apparent—and this wasn’t a happy or an easy realization—was that Mark was spending his life with one of the world’s weaklings: the type of person who gets diagnosed with cancer and, instead of going outside and taking on life, gets in bed and waits for the inevitable. He’d expected more from Maggie. My god, he’d expected so much more.

This is some pretty ugly stuff: “one of the world’s weaklings” and using someone else’s tragedy (lost a baby) to justify his own self-righteousness. It might be tempting to write something like this as dialogue, to just come out with it and turn the ugly thoughts into a full-on fight. The problem with doing that, though, is that it doesn’t leave many options for going forward. Once you call your spouse a weakling and compare them unfavorably to cancer patients, the dice have been thrown, so to speak. By making these thoughts simply that—thoughts—Pittard has created an emotional backdrop to everything that Mark says or does, which is almost certainly less awful than the backdrop. This creates tension: we know those ugly thoughts are lurking, waiting to get out, and so as the novel’s plot escalates, we worry about what Mark will do when pushed or stressed too far.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s  create an emotional backdrop for a character, using Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to ME, as a model:

  1. Give your character something to mentally grouse about. Mark is upset with his wife’s behavior after getting mugged. Forget, for a moment, how unfair his reaction might be. The truth in life is that people are often selfish and we manage to maintain relationships and find happiness because we minimize and make amends for our selfish acts. But that doesn’t mean anyone is perfect. So, let your character lash out selfishly—in the privacy of his or her head. The character can be upset with something out in the world (the cable company, a professional sports team, immigrants) or with something that he or she actually encounters: a spouse, family member, coworker, or neighbor. What irritates your character?
  2. Establish why this person/thing irritates your character. This is probably the selfish part. Mark is irritated with Maggie because she’s become less enjoyable to be around. Her reaction to being mugged has interrupted their lives together. But, again, forget whether your character is being fair or not. By letting your character think selfishly, you are, in part, creating an aspect of that character’s self, something the character wants badly to protect.
  3. Let your character compare the irritant to something better. Mark believes that his coworker, Patricia Hatchett, has responded to difficulty in a better way. He’s thinking, in different words, “Look at So-and-So. Is she (acting like you)? No, she’s (what’s she’s doing instead).” This is something that people tend to do when they’re unhappy—they go in search, mentally or physically, of something to justify their unhappiness. What comparison would your character make? Who is the So-and-So in your character’s version of “Look at So-and-So?”
  4. Let your character compare the irritant to something bad (in your character’s view). Mark compares Maggie to a cancer patient who sits at home, waiting to die. Clearly, he thinks this is a bad thing. It’s really just a straw man that Mark has created, a manifestation of his own ideas. That’s why he doesn’t give a name to the cancer patient—as anyone who’s seen cancer knows, the details can get in the way of how we believe a person ought to react. He’s basically saying a version of “You’re like someone who (does something theoretically awful like stealing candy from a baby or eating the last slice of pie without sharing).” Obviously, I’m a fan of pie and so that’s something that I might say. What would your character say? How would you character fill in the blank of his or version of “You’re like someone who ____”?

The goal is to create the emotional backdrop for a character, the worst-case version of his or her feelings on a subject. This backdrop gives readers a sense for how far a character might go in a dramatic moment.

Good luck.

How to Reveal Tension Indirectly

1 Mar
Daniel Oppenheimer's political biography, Exit Right, tells the story of six men who converted from the American left to American Conservatism—with an eye toward what the history and experience that set the stage for their conversions.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s political biography, Exit Right, tells the story of six men who converted from the American left to American Conservatism—with an eye toward what the history and experience that set the stage for their conversions.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. It’s a biography of six liberals who converted to conservatism.

You can read the first pages here by clicking on Google Preview icon beneath the image of the book.

How the Book Works

One of the men profiled by Oppenheimer is Whittaker Chambers, a Communist and spy who, after his conversion to Christianity and Conservatism, would testify against famed-spy Alger Hiss. In writing about Chambers, Oppenheimer begins with his childhood and, particularly, with his complicated parents. Here is how Oppenheimer describes Chambers’ father:

Chambers’s father, Jay, was a talented illustrator and half-closed gay man whose passion, as his son eventually came to realize, was compressed into a sublimely choked obsession with “ornament, costume, scenery…” Jay spent months every year hand-making the gorgeously embellished Christmas cards he sent out to a select group of appreciative friends.

And here is Chambers’ mother:

She declaimed poetry and dramatic monologues, sang sad songs in three languages, instructed her sons in the glories of music and theater and literature.

And here is their relationship:

She was overemotional where he was severely contained. Her craving for affection and affirmation was met by him with, at best, an effortful formality, and at worst by emotional and occasionally physical torment.

These descriptions are quite direct and informational, but they don’t accomplish Oppenheimer’s goal, which is to get the reader inside Chambers’ head and feel the textures of the conflict that would direct him first into Communism and then into American Conservatism. In other words, yes, Chambers’ parents were “badly suited to each other,” but so what?

Oppenheimer answers that question with indirectness. Rather than immediately formulating an explanation (because his parents had a poor marriage, Chambers became a Communist), Oppenheimer puts the reader inside the Chambers house. He does this by showing how the awful marriage infected every object and interaction.

First, we learn that the Chambers moved from Manhattan to Long Island, which Chambers’ father resented. As a result, he refused to spend money on the house’s upkeep, to the extent that a “piece of the ceiling in the dining room fell down, and because Jay wouldn’t give her the money to hire someone to repair it, Laha covered it over with a cheesecloth that remained there, ruefully patching the hole, for more than a decade.”

Young Whittaker was treated the same as the house: “Laha would drench [him] in a performative affection that was implicitly reproachful of her husband, and…Jay would treat [him] with a cool contempt that was meant to reflect onto his wife (and back onto himself).”

Even the boy’s name was contested. His mother called him “by his girlish middle name, Vivian” and his father called him by the nickname “Beadle.”

The brilliance of this passage is not that what we learn about Chambers but the emotional impact of what we already know about him. This is precisely what Gardner was getting at with his exercise about the barn. In a story about a man whose son has died in a war existed, the reader wold likely learn about the dead son early on. The barn passage would follow that information, to help the reader feel the man’s emotions.

In prose—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—it’s important to look beyond the basic information and its most obvious consequences. The emotional impact often lies in moments and objects that don’t seem to be directly connected to the information.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s reveal emotional impact with indirectness, using Exit Right by Daniel Oppenheimer as a model:

  1. Start with a direct statement. Oppenheimer states that Chambers’ parents were badly suited for each other. It’s a statement that contains a great deal of tension, but all of it is latent: not yet developed to an active state. It’s potential tension, which is exactly what you’re trying to give your narrative. So, write a basic statement about something in relationship with something else: two people in a relationship (partners, spouses, siblings, parent/sibling, friends, coworkers, etc), a person in a relationship with an inhuman thing (house, landscape), or two things in relationship with each other (like the fabled house build on sand).
  2. Reveal the source of tension. Oppenheimer gives each of Chambers’ parents a passage of description. Then he brings them together in the statement that they were not well suited as a couple. So, write a passage about each of the elements in your relationship from earlier. They don’t need to be complete opposites. In Exit Right, Chambers’ parents are both artistic and erudite. The problem is that they’re incompatible in other ways. So, don’t worry so much about the conflict as you write. Instead, give each element in the relationship a fair description. Then, bring them together to show why they’re mismatched.
  3. Turn the source of tension into a black hole. Black holes suck everything into them. Only very, very distant objects are safe. This is what Oppenheimer does with Chambers’ parents’ marriage. Its dysfunction sucks in everything that is nearby: the house where they live and the kids. So, look around the tension/conflict you’ve created. How can you make every object and person close to it part of it. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents fought: you learned to pick up subtle clues (how they ate their eggs in the morning, how they changed channels on the TV) about the state of their argument. Every interaction can become part of the conflict. Give yourself objects and interactions (with the mailman, with a piece of mail, anything) and write a passage in which that object or interaction becomes part of the tension.

The goal is to reveal the emotional impact of a conflict by showing how it affects every part of a character’s life.

Good luck.

How to Write with Negative Capability

12 May
Joni Tevis' nonfiction collection The World Is on Fire is a collection for a future culture, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

Joni Tevis’ nonfiction collection The World Is On Fire is a collection meant for some future race, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.

A recent essay that uses negative capability in a dramatic way is Joni Tevis’ “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City).” It is included in her new collection The World Is On Fire and was originally published in Orion, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

Probably no term has been more analyzed than negative capability, so let’s just start from the beginning, with Keats’ own words:

“it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”

Here’s an even shorter version, as restated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So, the short answer to the question, “What is negative capability?” is that it’s the ability to give equal consideration to (or even believe) two contradictory ideas. So, what’s this have to do with writing great prose? Take a look at this passage from “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)”:

I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much.

Tevis has set up contradictory ideas, a contradiction that is set up in the first sentence: 1) the world is beautiful and amazing, and 2) all of that beauty can be taken away. In other words, as the next sentence states, we’re all going to die. This might not seem contradictory. After all, both things are true. The world can be pretty great (though it’s not always), and everyone now living will die. Put that way, most of us will likely say, “Sure. Of course.” But what the paragraph does is make us feel the contradiction. It’s the same feeling that we often get at funerals or after hearing about some tragedy or horrible act in the world. We’re going to die, and it might be really terrible. That’s the message the preacher has, and when Tevis walks out of the church, she blinks at the light and delivers a line that I absolutely adore: “How could we go out for fried chicken after that?”

We know the passage has worked because there’s no good answer to the question. Her parents say, “Try not to worry about it too much,” which is no kind of answer. Or, it’s almost exactly the definition of negative capability, a term that is often considered a goal for good writing. In “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” Tevis suggests that believing in contradictory things is an inevitable and natural part of the human experience and that drama, the stuff of good writing, comes from a character’s inability to tie together those contradictory elements. The goal shouldn’t be, as Keats puts it, to avoid “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Instead, it should be to reach for that fact and reason and find it missing. As with all writing, you want the reader to ask, in some form, the question, “Now what?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension with negative capability, using “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis as a model:

  1. Set up the conflicting ideas. Tevis uses “life is beautiful” and “we’re all going to die.” This isn’t so different from what Stuart Dybek does in his famous story, “We Didn’t.” He pairs sex and death. If you wish, you can stick to religion: “Jesus loves me” and “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” Or, you can move toward a personal conflict with others: “I’m a good person” and “everyone hates me” or “I’m horrible” and “everyone loves me.” Or, you can create an internal conflict: “I want to do good” and “I love doing bad” or “I love my children” and “I want to be free.” The goal is to put two incompatible ideas or beliefs in the same place, at the same time. It doesn’t really matter how small or large, personal or cosmic those ideas are. The important thing is that they should resist being held together.
  2. Make the reader believe one of those ideas. Tevis does this beautifully with the sentences about deadly accidents and the quotes from the preacher. The deadly accidents give us visceral proof of the idea. How can we argue that we all die when it’s happening in front of us? The preacher creates a philosophical framework around that proof; he’s telling his congregation how to think about the proof that they witness. This two-part structure is important. If anything that happens to a character/person/narrator is worthwhile, then that person has given it significant thought and has formulated a story to tell about it or mental approach to it. How we think about something is just as important as the reason we believe it.
  3. Introduce, quickly, the other idea. This is what happens when Tevis brings us out of the church, into the beautiful world and asks how we can bear to eat fried chicken. She’s juxtaposing the beliefs. She sets beauty (sunlight and crepe myrtles) against the preacher’s version of the world, with its real proof (untimely accidents). If the juxtaposition is sharp or harsh enough, the reader will understand, on a visceral level, the impossibility of both things being true. We will question (or understand the characters when they question) how both can be true at the same time.
  4. Answer the question with negative capability. Have someone say, as Tevis’ parents did, “Try not to worry about it too much.” If you have any experience with Christianity, you may be attaching a word to this dilemma: faith. We accept, on faith, things that we cannot understand or that seem not to be possible. But faith cannot exist without a crisis of faith (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a matter of faith; it’d just be obvious). What you’re setting up is a moment where the narrator or character understands that two ideas cannot be held together, but there they are, together, and they must deal with the mental trauma of trying to make congruous this incongruous pairing. In other words, someone must say, “Don’t think about it too much,” and that mental avoidance must come to seem impossible or undesirable. When that happens, the reader will automatically want to know, “Then what?”

Good luck.

How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

5 May
What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’t work together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

Melissa Falcon Field’s novel What Burns Away has this tension in spades. You can read the opening of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel opens with a scene that may feel familiar to parents of young children. It’s morning, the baby is awake and screaming, and one of the parents is getting ready for work. The other is staying home. So, the scene is set:

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: “Mama! Come!

Such hollering tends to create a particular mood in a house, in a scene. Think about the last time you were around tired people while a child screamed. What was the mood? Frustrated? Frantic? Now, watch the book’s narrator (Jonah’s mother) look at her husband:

I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Already, you can see a distance open up between the sensibility of the scene (screaming child) and the response of the character “tapped his razor.” Imagine how else this description of the husband could have been written. He could have become as frantic as the child (parents often do). He could have snapped at his wife. He could have rushed out the door. Instead, he moves methodically. Now, watch how the sensibility of that tapping razor gets stretched along:

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon’s hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. “Please, Mama!”

Every sentence contains a key detail: Instead of turning to his wife to see if she hears the baby, Miles keeps his back to her. He has gained weight, which has pooled (note the inertia implied in that word choice) at his waist. We learn that he’s a surgeon with a steady hand. In short, his refusal to get sucked in to the household drama is an essential part of his nature and evident in his actions, his physical appearance, and his career.

Now, watch what happens next:

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

That’s a cold line. He’s asserting himself and his sensibility upon the drama around him. It’s a line that you can feel like a punch in the gut.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a gap between scene and character using What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field as a model:

  1. Set the tone of the scene. Often, this is done by introducing a particular force. In What Burns Away, it’s a screaming baby. In my earlier example, it was an uncle acting inappropriately at a wedding. Both are characters who can’t be tamed, at least not easily. This week’s episode of Mad Men had a great example of this. Don’s in a meeting with a table full of creative directors, listening to a pitch about beer. The company is impressively huge, and so everyone is listening intently. But not Don. In short, walk something into the scene that cannot be ignored, that must be dealt with.
  2. Create the character who will not play along. In What Burns Away, the husband refuses to quicken his morning routine for a screaming child. In Mad Men, Don refuses to listen. At the wedding, a character could egg the uncle on, rather than tamping down his behavior. If you know what the best or necessary behavior is, think about what it would mean for a character to A) do the opposite or B) disregard the thing that cannot be ignored.
  3. Be subtle. Miles eventually tells his wife to get the baby, which is highly dramatic, but before we get to that moment, we see him resisting or ignoring in a very small way: tapping his razor. In Mad Men, Don looks out the window before he walks out of the room. Don’t jump directly to the drama. Set it up by giving the character the smallest possible physical action that reveals or embodies his or her sensibility or behavior in general. Give the character a way to not play along that no one but the reader and maybe one other character will notice.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: