Here is a repeat post from 2007. I’ll be back tomorrow with a fresh You Tell Me.
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. 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.”
**12/28/10 UPDATE: Sad coda, the John Barleycorn is now closed. Also there is no longer a trash can on the Sesame Street website.