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.

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