Lemons, Lemonade and Storybook Character Development
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Podcast Transcript: Hi, and welcome to The Genuine Writer Podcast episode #2. My name is Jeannette DiLouie, and I’m the chief executive editor of Innovative Editing, a full-service editorial company that helps you present yourself like a pro in the writing realm. Today, that’s by turning lemons into lemonade, annoyingly optimistic thought that may be.
Come to think of it, it’s especially annoying when the lemons in question are actually people: bad bosses, siblings you’ve never gotten along with, that Patriots fan at church when you’re a Dolphins fan. Or a Jets fan. Or a Buffalo fan. Or a fan of any other team, really.
In those cases, sometimes you just need to vent. You’re frustrated by your circumstances, and you need to express – to expel – the frustration you feel in a healthy way (aka, without punching the perpetrator of that frustration in the nose). The last thing you want to hear in response is someone taking the other person’s side. “Well, he’s going through a really hard time right now, you know,” is not the most desired immediate answer to “Oh my word, he’s ruining my life!”
Fortunately, this episode has no intention of trying to show you someone else’s perspective for their sake. It’s not meant to make you take the other person’s side or turn you into a better person… only a better writer. Like it or not, repetitively annoying people you have to deal with on a regular basis can provide great opportunities to make your fiction more realistic.
By the way, we’re talking about face to face interactions. So no, the people down in D.C. don’t count. They’re a whole ‘nother story altogether.
But the guy you have to golf with every other week because he’s friends with one of your regular golfing buddies, or your Young Adult Lit professor who keeps giving you Cs for no explainable reason, or your grandmother who talks and talks and talks about the most depressing topics under the sun no matter how sunshiny the day? Those kinds of people are just lemons waiting to be turned into lemonade.
Do you know how lucky you are? You have character mockups right in front of your face! The more you understand why real-life people are flawed, the more you’re able to understand what drives your fictional figures to act the way they do.
This doesn’t mean you have to write out all of their backstories. In fact, most of the time, please don’t. Readers are typically much better suited when they view a written world through limited perspectives. Too many backstories complicate things. With that said, understanding major characters’ perspectives as intimately as possible will help you to write out their thoughts, words and behavior in a much more engaging way.
For instance, it might be accurate to label a villain as a jerk, but jerks aren’t uniform. They’re not a one-size-fits-all deal. So how do you make yours stand out from every other jerk ever written?
To show this principle in action, let’s pick on your hypothetical grandmother. We’ll even go so far as to give the exact situations you have to deal with her in. So here goes:
Ten months ago, your recently widowed grandmother moved in with your mom and dad in Philadelphia while you live in Virginia. On the plus side, this does mean you don’t have to deal with her too often. On the downside, major family-oriented holidays are a lot less enjoyable now. She’s a very negative person, always trying to find the downside of a situation. Her granddaughter just got married? Well, her husband seems nice enough now, but just you wait! He’s bound to turn into an abusive man eventually and make her miserable. The floors just got refinished? It’s a lovely material to be sure, but it’s going to get scratched up so quickly and then it’ll look horrid.
Your grandmother has only lived with your parents for a year – not even at this point – yet you’ve begun to dread going back home to see them.
That’s not the nicest place to be in, I know. But since it is what it is, you might as well use it and use it well. Don’t focus on tamping down your annoyance, glancing at the clock every five seconds or trying to come up with excuses to disengage the next time your grandmother corners you into a conversation. Far from it! Listen to what she has to say. What words is she using or not using? Are there any telltale motions she’s making? Expressions? Intonations?
She’s pessimistic for a reason. There’s some motivating force driving her to live the way she is. So what is it? The more you listen instead of tune out, the more you might realize that your grandfather never did anything nice for her. He wasn’t physically abusive, just intensely self-focused, using her to make himself feel better while never really trying to reciprocate.
Fifty years of that kind of subtle oppression can have major effects on a person. In her mind, she should never expect anything good when she saw so little of it before. She’s afraid to open herself up to an optimistic thought when, to her, she has such a high chance of being disappointed yet again.
A character based off of her pattern of behavior probably isn’t going to want to do happy things like holding a baby. She’s not going to want to watch rom-coms. And she’s not going to want to hear about other people’s good news because it’s 1) a reminder of how her life didn’t contain such amazingness and 2) it’s a sign that there might be reason to hope for good things after all which, again, is too scary a thought to pursue.
Knowing all of that about your grandmother may or may not make being around her any easier. But it will make it much more productive the next time you need to write realistically about a Debbie-downer type of character.
For more tips about characters and how to handle them, sign up for Innovative Editing’s free Genuine Writer e-letter. Right now, it’s covering the subject of flash fiction. But in just a couple weeks, we’ll be moving on to the kind of story elements that make fiction – flash, short story or novel-length – as captivating as you want them to be. Sign up for The Genuine Writer e-letter at www.InnovativeEditing.com/the-genuine-writer. Again, that’s www.InnovativeEditing.com/the-genuine-writer. Or just scroll down on the main page of www.InnovativeEditing.com. You’ll find the link there too.