Weird is Better

November 14, 2010

Duh.

Here’s the “eccentricity” chunk of my “Writing Great Characters” talk at Write on the Sound 2010. As before, the audio’s a little shaky, so turn it up.

Sol Stein said it:

“Eccentricity is at the heart of strong characterization. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the reader’s first vision of them.

If you were to examine the surviving novels of the twentieth century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric.”

(Watch that ‘thank you’ sign behind me. It’s the real star of this show.)

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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!


The Best Characters do the Wacky

October 23, 2009

Here’s a simple ingredient for compelling characters: Eccentricity.

Sol Stein, in Stein On Writing, lays the smack down:

Stein on Writing

Eccentricity is at the heart of strong characterization. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the reader’s first vision of them.

If you were to examine the surviving novels of the twentieth century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric.

This is not a tough argument to make. Imagine your favorite characters in novels you love the most. Boom, eccentric.

If you’ve got other strengths (like a wild premise or setting), maybe you can squeak by with “everyman” sort of characters.

The problem is that our main characters are a shadow, a fragment, of ourselves… the writer. And inexperienced writers are afraid of what they might reveal, afraid of seeming ridiculous or perverted.

So inexperienced writers create characters who just want to get through this (whatever “this” is), who just want to live a normal life.

Bad news for those writers: The weight of literary history is against them. Examples:

Captain Ahab
Melville’s Captain Ahab, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz all possess eccentric personalities and drives.

Sherlock Holmes possesses unique powers, but he’s also got a set of bizarre quirks (from misogyny and cocaine addiction to… well, I would say he’s ADD).

Quirks are everywhere, from Indiana Jones’s hat and whip, to Harry Potter’s scar and glasses, to Manny’s mechanical arm (that’s Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

Shall we include unusual background, or legacy? That’s gets us Harry Potter again, and Luke Skywalker.

Call of the Wild
Animal characters are no exception. Buck (in London’s The Call of the Wild) is no ordinary dog, and a main character in Adams’s Watership Down is not only a rabbit, but a psychic rabbit.

I’m not saying that eccentric characters are all you need. If you do have nicely freakish characters, your job isn’t finished. Now you can try for some character complexity and tap the power of your readers’ envy.