Let the Character Fit the Crime

March 7, 2010

Some writers dream up characters and write stories about them.

Other writers dream up crimes and seek characters to commit them.

By “crime” I mean the idea for the story, the situation, the plot, the high concept, the story problem. In science fiction, it’s sometimes called the gimmick (but I don’t think that’s fair).

I’m in that second group. The first impulse of a story for me is usually some weird answer to a “What if?” question. And sometimes, it’s just a good “What if?” question with no clear answer. To get the answer, I write the story.

For example:

1) What if a big creepy shark attacked a New England resort community?

2) Maybe you love alternate history stories. What if someone could travel to parallel realities and see how history, and his or her own life, could have worked out differently? (This is the premise of the novel I just finished. In other words, Sliders… only good.)

3) Let’s try a romance. What if a woman fell in love with a billionaire?

So fix your story idea in your mind, and ask, “Who would be most hurt by this?” Imagine a character who would be the most emotionally affected by the situation you want to write about.

Go ahead and twist the knife. We writers are all about pain. (And readers like it that way. They want to read about people at the end of their rope. Otherwise, why bother?)

Got it? That’s your character.

So how about this:

1) Who would be most freaked out by that shark? The sheriff, of course — someone charged with the responsibility of keeping the islanders safe. Someone who moved there from New York, specifically to escape violence and bloodshed. His children came too… and they love the beach. To top it off, he’s afraid of water.

For the islanders, the shark is scary. For Sheriff Brody, the shark is a nightmare.

2) For my reality-hopping novel, I created a character whose parents died young, leaving him with a younger brother and sister to care for. He desires a woman who is just out of his reach. He feels unfairly shackled by fate, and the chance to see other worlds where he could live his dreams — instead of feeling tortured by them — is irresistible to him.

Yet, he loves his family. His connection to them makes him unable to forget his origins, and drives his internal conflict. Soon enough, he’d sacrifice anything to get back to his home.

3) The key to romance is to have two characters fall in love… and then come up with as many obstacles as you can to keep them apart. So how can we torture this nice lady? If the man is rich, then perhaps she’s poor, visibly poor, painfully poor. Of course, she’s in a position to see him every day, so her agony is perpetual. Perhaps she cleans his office (or perhaps she’s a lowly prostitute, or perhaps she’s tasked with planning his wedding to another woman — ouch! Are you seeing how big-shot screenwriters use this technique?).

Maybe she’s one of his employees, and she’s downsized. Now she’s cut off from him. To me, that one sounds like the catalyst, the event that sets the story in motion.


We read fiction to be entertained, and to get wisdom. Writers can satisfy both of these needs by showing characters who are used up, burnt out, up against the wall, out of options — in other words, people who are so wounded by their problem that they’ll do something profound in order to solve it.

Hurt your characters. A lot. That might mean choosing characters who will be hurt the most.

Adversarial Dialogue: “I love you, stupid”

November 6, 2009

Here is an easy way to spice up dialogue between characters in your fiction, whether screenplays or novels.

Make it adversarial.
Adam's Rib

That’s a precise word. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, went for pages trying to communicate the idea (sorry, Donald) that Sol Stein nailed in a single word in Stein on Writing.

It doesn’t mean “confrontational” in the sense of conflict. That sort of dialogue — say, between hero and villain — comes naturally to writers. Hero vs. Villain dialogue is always fun to write (and usually, to read) because it’s exciting when people don’t get along.

But what can kill your story is the dialogue between your good guys while your villain is off-stage.

Say, a young woman and her sisters in a wagon train on the Oregon trail, watching ominous storm clouds. Or a loving husband and wife, discussing a shooting reported in the local paper. Or a mother and daughter on the morning of the first day of school.

First thought: Cut the scene. But maybe you need it for exposition or foreshadowing or character development or to set up a plot point.

Okay then. Make the scene more interesting with adversarial dialogue. Don’t let them console each other too often. They don’t need to be cruel, and they don’t need to be at each others’ throats. But give your characters some biting wit, some dialogue with an edge.

Here’s a video where I talk about adversarial dialogue, and describe a couple of examples — such as a clip from Gilmore Girls, written by Amy Sherman-Palladino.

(This is from Write on the Sound 2009. If you can’t understand what I’m saying, leave a comment below.)

Interestingly, the fiction genre that seems to have adversarial dialogue mastered is comedy. Often, comedy doesn’t have much conflict to fuel the reader’s curiosity. Maybe to compensate, comedy is loaded with adversarial dialogue.

Not that it matters. This is a genre-proof trick.

Here is the segment from the screenplay of Adam’s Rib (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) I mention in the video. It’s about a married couple of lawyers who, eventually, end up arguing opposite sides of a court case:


AMANDA: Look! All I’m trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society’s eyes, it’s all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing – the same, mind you, and she’s an outcast.
ADAM: Finished?
AMANDA: No. Now I’m not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.
ADAM: Well, that’s awfully large of you.
AMANDA: No, no, it’s not your fault. All I’m saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal?
ADAM: Mostly, I think, females get advantages!
AMANDA: We don’t want advantages! And we don’t want prejudices!
ADAM: Oh, don’t get excited, honey, and don’t –
AMANDA: I’m not excited –
ADAM: Oh, you’re giving me the Bryn Mawr right too.
AMANDA: Well what did she try to do? She tried to keep her home intact.
ADAM: Yeah, by knocking off her husband.
AMANDA: She didn’t knock him off. He’s alive. She didn’t kill him.
ADAM: She tried. She missed.
AMANDA: Well, all right. Now supposing –
ADAM: What do you want to do? Give her another shot at him?
AMANDA: No, I don’t… it’s the kind of thing burns my goat!
ADAM: Your what?
AMANDA: My goat! My goat!