Tag Archives: plot points in a story

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 Make the Impossible Possible in Stories

2 Sep
Sarah Frisch's story, "Housebreaking," appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review.

If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?

Sarah Frisch offers a kind of textbook model for how to put Ford’s maxim into practice in her story, “Housebreaking.” It was published in The Paris Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about two strangers who move in together after a chance encounter. It’s the sort of story that would cause a listener in real life to say, “Wait—you did what?” Most people don’t move in with perfect strangers for a lot of good reasons. As a result, any story in which this happens must overcome a great deal of skepticism on the reader’s part. Frisch begins to do this in the first paragraph:

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

Notice how Frisch skips over their initial encounter. By the time we meet the woman, Charity, the story has already begun. The next paragraph fills in some of the details about the encounter but also continues to skip over a great deal:

Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.

Both paragraphs use a similar technique, one that’s not unlike the famous yada-yada from Seinfeld: “His life was in disrepair” yada-yada “he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman.” “It was already rented” yada-yada “they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” In both cases, if the story had shown that first encounter in great detail, those details would have needed to explain the thought processes behind both characters’ decisions to continue the encounter. Imagine trying to write dialogue for such a scene. Even in real life, we tend to skip over such details; we sometimes don’t even know exactly how we get into situations. The being-there is more important than the how. Yet in fiction, in early drafts, we tend to write those scenes out, and then we get lost.

Even when Frisch uses dialogue, she works fast, making the scene happen quickly so that we don’t have time to object:

“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.

Something big happens in that moment, internally for Seamus, but we don’t get any details about it. The story doesn’t show us his thoughts, though the next passage does explain how he was unprepared for this moment: his kitchen is a mess, and he has no food ready except “package of ground beef rotting in the crisper.”

A few lines later, the story gives Charity a similar moment:

“I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.

“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.

“Everybody needs help.”

“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.

Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.

When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met.

Notice how matter-of-factly the story skips over the internal struggle: “Then he asked her to stay” and “When she accepted.” If the story had shown that struggle, it likely could have gotten bogged down, taking longer to get to the real story, which is what happens when these two people move in together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s overcome unlikely plot scenarios using “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch as a model:

Before you can use this exercise, you need to Identify the problematic plot point. It could be the scenario itself (two strangers move in together). It could also be a decision that a character makes deeper into the story. The point is to know which points you’re having trouble defending or explaining. Where is the explanation of a character’s thoughts or psychology bogging down the narrative? Once you’ve identified the sticking point, you can figure out how to yada-yada over the parts that don’t matter—in other words, you can skip to the good stuff.

  1. Skip over an unlikely initial encounter. Frisch begins the story by explaining Seamus’ situation and then saying, essentially, “but all that went out the window because now he was doing something totally unlike what was just described.” This can serve as a good model for any opening: Here’s a description of a character that suggests he/she is a particular way, but one day he/she found him/herself doing something totally out of character. This opening not only skips over difficult details but also creates tension: how did this unlikely thing happen?
  2. Use a transition to glide across time. Sometimes the right word or phrase can help the story leap over a few minutes to a more interesting moment in a scene. Look at the word soon in this sentence: ” It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” That word skips over the conversation about the rental unit, which is not only less interesting but also tricky to write since it involves a conversation about doing things the characters wouldn’t normally do. So, try introducing something that would normally end a scene (“It was already rented”) and then use the word soon to keep the scene going (“but soon they were on his deck.”
  3. State a character’s action or decision outright, with no explanation. There are statements that we consider making or actions that we consider doing for days (or for a few tortured seconds) before we actually make or do them. That mental state is hard to describe and often not particularly interesting. But if you’ve set up a character and the way he/she tends to act, it can be jarring (in a good say) to state that he/she did something totally out of character (“Then he asked her to stay for dinner”). So, if you’ve tried to describe that mental state and crisis, cut it completely and just state the result as quickly as possible. Once you’ve surprised the reader, you can give details (as Frisch does) for how the character is totally unprepared for this decision.
  4. Use a dependent clause to make a decision seem inevitable. Another mental state that we often try to describe is a moment of waiting: I just said this, and now I’m waiting to see how she’ll respond. It’s a really hard thing to describe, and often it’s better to just skip the response entirely and get to the result. You can do this with two basic pieces of grammar: a subjective conjunction (when, after, although) and a dependent clause (the string of words that usually accompanies these words). Like the word soon, these words skip over time (“When she accepted”). You can do something almost identical with many scenes. Skip over the conversation or waiting period and use when or after to get to the thing being discussed or waited for.

Good luck and have fun!

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