Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Writing Advice From Some Old Guys At My Gym

I did not expect to receive writing advice at the gym. I'm not the sociable gym type who knows everyone and asks about their various pets, I like to get in, get out, and go home to complain about how sore I'm going to be the next day.

But there I was, doing my core exercises with one of those exercise orbs (which always ends up making you look rather ridiculous) and I overheard this conversation between two of the gym old timers. Oh, and the conversation is PG-13, so the young and/or faint at heart should go peruse the Sesame Street website for a while (just don't click on the trash can. Seriously, don.... why did you have to click on the trash can???). And for the record, I don't watch the Sopranos.

Old Timer #1: So, how about the Sopranos? Who do you think is gonna get whacked next week?
Old Timer #2: I hope it's the kid. I hate that kid. He's a waste of space.
Old Timer #1: Whaddya mean he's a waste of space?
Old Timer #2: He's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: No balls? Whaddya mean he's got no balls? He's leaving that world behind. He doesn't like the violence. He's going his own way.
Old Timer #2: That's because he's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: So the only way to have balls is to be a violent sociopath?
Old Timer #2: No. But if you don't have balls it's not a choice. If you got no balls you're just a wuss. In order to make a real choice you have to have it in you, only you turn your back. He's just got no balls.

Imagine my surprise.*

The gist of what Old Timer #2 is saying is that in order for a character to make a real choice, he/she has to have the capacity to make both choices he/she is presented with. This is really good writing advice!

One of the best ways to reveal character in a novel is to have the character make a choice because it reveals the character's core values. We all have this innate curiosity about what makes people tick, and when a character makes a decision under pressure when they're faced with a difficult choice, we learn about their priorities and values. Does the character value his pride or his life? Does the character love the girl enough to risk his own neck? Etc. etc.

But in order for this to work, a character has to have the capacity to make both choices. Otherwise your reader will sniff out a false choice a mile a way. So I can see Old Timer #2's point -- if the kid from the Sopranos doesn't follow his father's footsteps it doesn't necessarily mean that his value system is different, he just might not (forgive me) have balls. A more interesting dilemma would be if we got the sense that he DID have courage, but then decided to go his own way. Then it would mean that he was rejecting his father's value system in a real way.

There you have it. Writing advice from the gym.

*The words "imagine my surprise" are an inside joke between me, my fiancee, and the wonderful patrons of San Francisco's greatest bar, John Barleycorn (please sign the petition to save John Barleycorn). Larry, the amazing bartender and owner, was working the bar when a homeless man stumbled in with a mysterious paper bag. He walked slowly up to the bar and things got quiet as everyone was wondering what the guy was going to do. Then he opened the bag to reveal a wine bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. He looked up at Larry and said, "Imagine my surprise."


Merry Jelinek said...

People watching and eavesdropping are two really great ways to research your fiction. Studying psychology can help you understand the character's drive, but it will never flesh out his voice.

The character who had the capability to make either choice is more interesting because we respect him. On the other hand, how many people in life have that kind of backbone? If there were that many we wouldn't find it remarkable at all. 'The kid' is not a main character and I would venture to guess that if the creators didn't make some of these characters weak, it wouldn't be believable either...

I agree, he's got no balls - but then, isn't that more believable considering his raising?

Katie Alender said...

That story is awesome (the cork story).

I have a hard time believing that people talk like that in San Francisco! Are you secretly a New York agent pretending to live out west?

Nathan Bransford said...


I know! It was a straight-out-of-New York conversation only in San Francisco. I think when people start talking about the Sopranos they talk like the people on the Sopranos.

original bran fan said...

"Imagine my surprise..."

Nathan, you really need to come with a beverage alert. Coffee. All over my keyboard.


writtenwyrdd said...

This is a great observation. Thanks for sharing the story, it's great. And so is the in joke!

Anonymous said...

They are not wacking that kid. If there is a movie in the works.
They already killed everyone.
Perhaps coma? Travel? Mental problems?

Mother - goes to jail for fraud
Daughter - clearly lesbian
Tony - new Japaneese love interest
Tony's sister (has balls) - seeks revenge
Possy - illness, find god, stomack stapling
Therapist - FBI all along

Kim Stagliano said...

Two amazing stories. Love the guys in the gym - they're right. And the homeless man? God bless him. And who transplanted a gymful of Jersey'ites to San Fran??

Kim ROSSI STAGLIANO - yeah, Italian....

(PS) I feel less like a heroine addict stuck in a convent (No more Snark) everytime I read your blog.

Stephen Parrish said...

I'm with Kim. I could do drugs, I could come here.

Better to come here.

Thanks for blogging.

Liz said...

So right about how watching the Sopranos will get you talking like them. Hubby and I watched an entire season one weekend, wow, did amazing things for our vocabularies!

Thanks for the great stories:)

Dave said...

"Imagine my Surprise" is a great story.

I never watched the Sopranos because I'm to effin cheap to pay for HBO and now that it's on DVD, who cares. I'm Italian and about half my relatives are rough-talking tough guys and broads.

Years ago, I watched a PBS series called "Upstairs, Downstairs" and I used to scream at the TV over the characterization of the Bellamy son. He never made a decision, never acted boldly, only grudgingly did the right thing - His father bailed him out of most troubles and the servants watched after him. In the end, he shot himself after losing all his and the servant's money in the 1929 stock crash. I thought to myself, what a jerk to take the easy way out. Then someone pointed out to me just how weak the character was written. He wasn't supposed to be decisive. He was, as my Brit friends pointed out - the third generation Clod of the Clods to Clods in Three Generations maxim. A weak and spineless personality drifitng through life, never committing, never taking a chance and depending on family (parents, wife and his children) for emotional support. He had no balls, no balls at all. Never made an independant decision or took responsibility for his life.

Dave said...

the literary character - John Barleycorn - dates from before 1568. A very respectable name for a bar and grill. I hope it survives, just like its namesake.
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last
The huntsman he can't hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn

sylvia said...

That's really timely advice. And I loved the cork story :)

John Askins said...

My character is a eunuch, and his motto is "Balls, shmalls." (He's also a poet.) In the end he decides NOT to be a Soprano because he thinks it would make him the butt of too many jokes. But he was tempted, really tempted.

green ray said...

Nathan, even though you passed on my partial, your blog is still such a pleasure to read. (Hey, I was happy to get a request!) Love your stories and your sense of humor. Is it just me, or why do I have so much trouble opening up the comments? Sometimes if I double-click with a lot of determination, I'll get in. (Sounds like getting published!)

Writers' Support and Inspiration said...

Interesting slip, Kim. "Heroine" addict?

I love my heroine too, but I ain't addicted to her. :) (Miss Snark, now, I WAS addicted to that one.)


jjdebenedictis said...

I recall an agent critiquing query letters on her blog once. She kept ranting about writers who summed up with some variation on: "Will [Joe Hero] choose [self-sacrificing act] or [selfish act]?"

At the time, I couldn't figure her antipathy out. What was so wrong about stating the character's conflict?

I'm currently reading "Story" by Robert McKee, and now I get it.

Unless Joe Hero is a complete jerk whom we will regret having wasted time on, he will choose [self-sacrificing act]. The writer has not set up a real dilemma.

A real dilemma is a choice between two good things, or two bad things. The character has to want - or not want - both of them.


A Paperback Writer said...

Hey, Nathan, you're probably too sophisticated to care, but I have nominated you for a thinking blogger award. If you'd like to see why, feel free to drop by my blog (obviously, clicking my name will take you there).
Or you can skip that part and just accept the compliment.

reality said...

Another addict to this blog. I don't mind the heroine either.
Thanks Nathan for helping me understand character development.

I second the award for sophisticated blogger.

Kate said...

I'm reminded of Anne of Green Gables' remark: "I wouldn't marry a man who was really bad. But I think I'd like it if he could be bad--but wouldn't." Even characters prefer characters who are capable of either choice.

Derrick said...

What do they put in the water fountains in the gyms out in CA?

That's too funny!

Kim Stagliano said...

Writer's support - guess I have writing on my mind"e". And. to be honest, I'm not all that well versed in tne "smack", despite my devotion to Aerosmith as a kid in Bahstun. So you're an editor I gather? :)

Zen of Writing said...

So? Did the bartender uncork the bottle?

A lesson in character *and* plot, very sneaky...

Ms. Clue-Gun said...

This is one of two reasons why Ms. Clue-Gun avoids gyms.

The second reason are those people who sweat so much and leave half of it behind when they're done with the machine. (gag)

j h woodyatt said...

Holycrap! John Barleycorn is threatened? That's a gddamn travesty! (Though, there are other bars in this town that compare well. I won't argue with you about whether it's the best. It's good enough.)

Reid said...

Excellent point about the characters making a choice. To me, that's why Han Solo was my favorite character from Star Wars.

Luke had a destiny. Han made a choice.

Man, being a geek can make it easy to come up with examples sometimes.

miller580 said...

Excellent analogy on character development. I just found your blog, but I will return. Thanks.

Afton Morris said...

I love reading your blog and the commentary is an uproar. I delight in this particular post because the Sopranos finale ended in a fashion that evokes the question raised by this post. This is the beginning of a love affair between your blog and me.

Related Posts with Thumbnails