Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc


Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.

I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.

Those had to be thwarted.

The Thwartings
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.

In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.

Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.

He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.

Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.

But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.

And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.

No—yuck!

Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?

Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?

I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …

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5 thoughts on “Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

  1. Y’all are heartless to poor Pinky. The schlub.

    Shawn Coyne talks about two ways to do the ironic ending: give your guy what he wants, and let him discover it tastes like goat hoof, or deny it irrevocably and have him discover that what he needs is a cuppa Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea. With milk, of course.

    Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational is required reading for novelists. If more of them read psych books we’d have more interesting and believable characters.

    Looking forward to Pinky’s high adventures. And to clear and accurate descriptions of Elfred.

    (You get my newsletter, right? The one with my first ever short story? Eh?)

  2. Joel, I like Shawn Coyne’s stuff a lot—he just started a story grid podcast with Tim Grahl—first one was good. And I’ve read some of Ariely’s book and listened to him either on a webinar or a TED talk—great stuff on how we make decisions, irrational feathers that we are.

    I do get your newsletter, buster, and always dig your stuff, short or long. Thanks for stoppin’ by.

  3. Tom! Pinky! Elfred!

    Ah, I love inhabiting this very special world we’ve created.

    And yes folks–Tom taught me not only to place our characters in pain through denial, but also to take them to the heights. Of success, of achievement, of potential reached.

    So far, one of them is when Pinky conducts a magnificent interview with Dr. Alice Hamilton. Google her. You won’t be disappointed.

    What Tom is teaching is that only when there are depths can the dizzying heights be truly appreciated–and only with heights in the mix can rock button truly hurt.

  4. Aiyee! “Rock Bottom.” There’s no edit button, and so now I’ve gone and got burned by autocorrect for the first time in a while.

  5. Rick, the “rock button” is when an author pushes one, releasing a cascade of boulders on unsuspecting characters. A form of Deus ex machina.

    Yes, it will soon be time to give Pinky a warm petting or two. Wish I had been feeling up to pushing it forward this week. It was only Thursday that I really began to feel better. But Pinky will get all his dues soon.

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