Singular Complaints

A good way to animate your lead characters from the inside is to explore a common mental loop that plays in all our heads.  As long as humankind has been in existence, we have always found things to complain about. So, if you want your characters to be realistic, wouldn’t they complain?

When you think of topics to kvetch about, a faceless behemoth will likely first come to mind: phone, cable, or insurance company. Yet that will hardly help your novel (unless it concerns a hurricane). The way a novel works, one character focuses on how he is affecting or is affected by another character. If you are writing about the human condition, a complaint is most successfully registered against another human being. 

You might start with the sentence: “She is always doing this to me.” If you identify a she, you’re already at the entrance of a rich mine. A mother is a common target of grievances, but it could be a sister, cousin, boss, anyone whose power over your character is strong enough to stir a deep emotional response. If you’re merely providing background information for a character, the target is only incidental in the novel. Yet what if she was one of the major characters? That means a lead character is complaining about someone the reader has gotten to know well. Now we’re all ears: come on, what are the things she does?

That is the next step. What is the reason for grumbling? The choice of topic is also strategic. If your character complains about his father’s preference for talking with perfect strangers rather than members of his family, we’re not only learning something about the father but the son as well. What does he do to capture his father’s attention? Or, has he given up on the problem and just stews about it? 

As in other fields of interior monologue, you can use other characters to focus the character’s mental peregrinations. When you choose a specific person and a specific topic, you can create a train of thought that mirrors how you complain about things. Start with “He drives me crazy,” and then list the reasons why. Pick the source and the subject of the complaint with an eye for what shines the most interesting light on the character complaining. You know how to bitch and moan. You do it every day. So employ it on your character’s behalf.

Exercise: If it helps, think about sitting down with a cocktail after work and complaining to your partner about what has happened that day or about who called today (about possibly an age-old complaint). If you’re really paying attention, turn on Siri when either you or your spouse go off on a rant. The cadence of that transcript may well be inserted into your manuscript.


The Value of Gossip

Writing is serious business. Sitting down at a desk entails a degree of solemnity akin to the grace achieved by monks. Gossip, on the other hand, is frivolous. So isn’t the title of this post a contradiction in terms? 

I’ll start with the example of Homer, the exemplar of oral storytelling. Where did he get all the tales that fill up The Iliad? Particular attention should be paid to the passages where Achilles is sulking in his tent, complaining to Patroclus. Can’t you imagine Homer standing at the tent flap, eavesdropping on that noble warrior?

That’s because gossip has existed since time immemorial. When you consider that people used to live in small villages, with so little access to entertainment, the arguments of a husband and wife next door provided a welcome break from banality. The affairs between secret partners required a special Commandment condemning them. On the flip side, most of us even today try to maintain placid exteriors to avoid prying eyes. A cellphone game is amusing, but come on, click out of that. Tell me what you think is going on with Harriet.

Everyone has dirty linen they want to hide, and as an author you have a duty to bring it out for the reader to view. The inside info on people is something we all enjoy, even guys. Why do you think the salacious discoveries of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use blazoned headlines for months? Don’t try to tell me that had anything to do with playing baseball. 

Thinking in terms of gossip can be very helpful when you are trying to illuminate the personal side of your characters. What’s the juicy stuff that we, as readers, need to know? Try to think this way at all times: how are you toying with the reader’s desire to hear good gossip? You could make a case that the entire mystery genre is driven by this primal urge. Who was in whose bedroom when—and who was watching?

When this imperative is adopted, it forces an author to ask herself a question: what is so interesting about my main characters that they are worthy of gossip? Nobody passes along dull news. Your protagonist needs to have provocative qualities; she needs problems that a reader can pry her fingers into. Is her background worthy of gossip? That seems like such a strange question. But in fact it goes straight to the heart of the matter. Readers want entertainment, so what dirt do you got? 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for background passages. Are they sounding rather earnest, like the character is St. Joan of Arc about to mount her horse? Instead, ask yourself a simple question. Does the past information you’re providing pass the gossip standard? Would you tell this, behind a raised hand, to your best friend? If not, that character needs more dirt thrown on her. Give her enough so that she can wallow down in the mire with the rest of us. 


We Want Your Opinions

To a large extent, a good heroine has an opinion about everything. Depending on how outrageous they are or how many are unleashed, the character’s opinions may be the main draw of the book, especially in a mystery series. We want to find out what comment Terry is going to make next.

Contrast that with thoughts. You try to insert thoughts for a character who is in earnest pursuit of his goals, and what happens? Yawn. Readers assume, as a given, that a lead character wants to accomplish something during the course of the book. The real question is: are we are going to have fun along the way? If your hero makes swashbuckling remarks as he cleaves a path through his obstacles, we can vicariously enjoy them. If your heroine gives us the low-down on the people she has to deal with, we feel included, like we’re part of her set.

When you add opinions into your mix, a much larger goal can be attained as well. In order for your character to make opinions that are consistent with his personality, you have to think through them first: who is this person? Opinions add up to an attitude, and that is a prism through which your character can view everything that is taking place. So, you’re not just trying to come up with bon mots and witty repartee. You must create that entire attitude.

That only happens, however, when you reach beyond yourself. Think about it: would I want to read about a person who has ordinary opinions? Of course not. I get enough of those at the office. I’m drawn to someone who is larger than life. The opinions she sloughs off are not just scattered along the way. In order to be shocking, you have to inhabit the mind of the person who could come up with a remark like that in the first place. You must become the person making the comments. When the opinions are crackling, you’re in thrall—to the character brave enough to make them.

Exercise: Closely examine any scene you’ve written. Do you find that your character is merely an observer, telling us what other people are doing? The accurate camera lens? Forget that idea. Put a filter on that camera: try to make everything shocking pink, or true blue, or bilious yellow. What does your character have to say about what is happening?


The Power of the Boast

In your ongoing struggle to merge with a point-of-view character, you may want to try a hammer. Its name is: the boast. Why is it so powerful?

We all are delighted when a character in a book makes some outrageous claim about what he will do next. “He was going to fool all of them, every single last one.” Or, better, “I’m going to make their heads spin, just wait and see.” Such a claim can be made to another character or told directly to the reader. 

I should point out that the boast has to be direct in order for it to break through the barrier you’re experiencing. A statement like “He was going to devise a stratagem that would fool all of them” is still commentary by the author about the character. The claim has to come from inside: simple, blunt, irrefutable, even if the reader knows the character is dead wrong.

Narrative work like this accomplishes several important aims. First, readers love to participate in such claims. If Kim announces that she is going to break through the glass ceiling, we’re now curious to see how she will do it. Even more important, a boast puts you as the author on the firing line. You’re not commenting any longer; now you have to carry out the character’s claim. 

A boast can be a way that allows you to draw more exaggerated features for the character. He gains a swagger. He’s that outrageous guy, not the well-meaning pawn you chose originally. That kind of character can kick some ass. You can have fun writing about a character like that.

You can decide to insert a boast once every chapter, for starters. In how many chapters does that character appear? Take that number as your guide: you have to devise that many boasts. What are they going to be? Draw up a list of them, being scandalous every time. Fight the inner voice that says, “I’d never do something like that,” or “Nobody will believe that.” Go on, start writing the scene knowing you’re going to make that boast—and then make your character live up to it. In the process, you’ll have to live up to it too.

Exercise: A boast extends a natural personality trait of a character. When you are drawing up your list, think about what qualities you’d like to exaggerate. What kind of person would say that? Better yet, what would it take for you to say that? You’re not writing about the character any longer. You have to step forward with a run of your own thoughts that supports the boast. So, go on, be somebody else: be the character.


Scattershot Thoughts

Every writer has a rhythm to her prose, a cadence that she follows as the words flow out. Although the general trend over the past century has moved toward greater simplification, authors still employ great variety in sentence structure. Changes occur even with the same writer, such as Alice Munro, whose wonderfully layered prose of 30 years ago has eased into her crisp prose of today—without any loss of her unerring eye for the perfect detail. 

You can use this trend toward simplification to break through the outside-in approach to your characters. You can deliberately break apart your usual prose cadence. Whatever mode you’re comfortable with, you’re going to write not like that.

How do people think? They think in fragments. You may remind yourself: oh, I have to pick up . . . You never get to “the dry-cleaning” because you already know that. Thought left unfinished. You grab your keys and out the door you go. You can take advantage of this incompletion as a way to drive beyond the layer of superficial observations about the action happening at that time. You move beyond descriptions to sentence fragments. 

Here is an example of how you can use fragments to dig deeper and deeper, so that you feel you’re thinking just like the heroine: ‘The end of the last school year, it mattered to her that she break free of him. So she had done it.  Semi-done it, really.  And done it friendly-like. Friendly, so now she could ask this of him.  Get dirt on Don.”

There is nothing fancy about this prose, but we do know exactly what she’s thinking, because the sentence fragments provide comments on what she just thought, and then a comment on the comment. That’s the way we think, constantly refining thoughts until they suit our self-image. 

One terrific side effect of this deliberate practice is that the character’s thoughts will stand out more from the rest of the narrative. We’re following that nice prose cadence until we reach a segment of thoughts. The discontinuity stands out in contrast. A reader can more readily participate, because your character is saying: I’m not smooth and unapproachable. Come on in!

Exercise: Review the manuscript for thoughts of your main character. Pick out those that are an immediate comment on a piece of plot action. Try to break that single sentence into several sentence fragments. Don’t just deliver a pronouncement on the character’s mood. Give us the first burst, then a consideration of that thought, then a further interpretation of that thought, getting it just right.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.