5.12.2016

All the Rage

Troubled characters arrest a reader’s attention. That’s why novels are either set on the fringes of society or feature the restless and ill-fitting within its embrace. As an author, you may in real life be an outsider, but you have likely made concessions in order to get by. In a novel, the more concessions a character makes, the less interesting she is.

When you are trying to infuse a character with a rebel’s fire, your instinctive need for human company—and the ties you forge—get in the way. You want extremes for the character, but you’re not like that. You likely come away from a hostile conversation feeling fussy and ashamed you were so easily bested. In retrospect, you could have told him a thing or two.

That’s where your access to the inner workings of a character’s mind can start. Even the most placid of us erupt every once in a while. The husband comes home from work late one too many times. The daughter whines about doing the dinner dishes right after you asked her nicely. Sharp words are exchanged—and then the aftermath sets in.

You relive what you said. For once you stood up for yourself. You remember the especially stinging lines, especially that one zinger that set your counterpart out of the room crying (or, more likely, steaming). Now be a writer. Write down those lines. You go on, fantasizing about what you should have said, what would have devastated your so-deserving opponent. Write down those lines too.

Yet if you have any conscience, the pleasing zeal of righteousness ebbs by degrees. You start to wish you could take back some of the things you said in the heat of battle. You worry about how you’re going to repair the damage you have wrought. You admit that some of what the foe claimed is partially true. Write all that stuff down as well.

You are cataloging rage. Rage is an extreme emotion. The passion that you feel while thinking about—and hopefully recording—those strings of outrage resembles the unsettled state of mind your character should be feeling as a baseline. That’s right. You raise the bar to hyper and go from there. When your character is lashing out in her desperation, like an elephant’s violent swings of its trunk, what damage is she creating? How does she feel about raising Cain? You know—because you have found a way to access those heated emotions.

Exercise: A voice recorder comes in handy when you’re trying to recapitulate an argument. You can shout to Siri just the way you shouted at your partner. I mean it, shout at the top of your lungs if that’s the way you argue. Don’t be embarrassed. Instead, follow up the shouting by writing down what thoughts come to you after you’ve spouted off. Become wrapped in your own self-perpetuating creative circle.

“The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.”
—George Carlin

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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