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.


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 …

Contort Your Characters: Trip Their Expectations


 Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked

When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.

This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.

We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.

Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.

Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.

Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.

I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.

However, my yard is very nicely raked.