Friday, July 23, 2010

Opposite Day--by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656–57 There was a funny episode of Seinfeld ages ago where George Constanza decides that all his instincts in life are misguided and that every life decision has been wrong. His life is the direct opposite from everything he’s set out to accomplish.

His solution? Do the complete opposite from every instinct he feels. He approaches attractive women and asks them out, introducing himself : “My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.”

Immediately he encounters great success with this method and begins applying it to job-hunting (“My last job was in publishing ... I got fired for having sex in my office with the cleaning woman..” he confesses during his interview), and even his choice in food (“Nothing's ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted ... and a cup of tea…”).

Sometimes I feel like I know my characters so well that I’ve stuck them in a rut. It’s particularly easy to stick them in a rut since I’m writing series. I know what they would do when faced with a dangerous snake in their yard. I know which ones would run off screaming, which would shoo it off and continue gardening, and which would get a hoe and commence whacking the creature to death.

What interests me is eliciting different reactions from characters. The bigger the stretch, the better:
Timid, tiny Tina flings herself at the armed man because her small son is threatened. (Unusual courage under duress.)

Stern Gertrude bites her tongue instead of scolding her sassy son-in-law Simon during Thanksgiving dinner. But her restraint results in a wild rainbow of color across her face. (For comedic effect.)

These are cardboard cutout examples, but I’m going to spend time today playing around with the idea.
What I don’t want to do is manipulate the character in an unnatural way (the usually intelligent heroine irrationally descends into the dark basement after hearing a suspicious noise scenario.) That’s the kind of thing that makes me throw books across a room.

But I also don’t want my regular characters to become predictable. Maybe they won’t have the success with their opposite-day approach that George did, but it might provide them with some opportunities for growth.
And, I think it could be fun. A bonus is extra internal character conflict. It’s stressful to leave our comfort zone(although, maybe, not for George Costanza.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams
Pretty is as Pretty Dies--Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious--Berkley Prime Crime...July 2010


Peggy Webb said...

You are so right about the challenges of series! I absolutely love your idea of putting characters into a situation where they depart from the norm and act "out of character."

Laura S. said...

This is great! It's so important to really know your characters, what they'd do in any situation. You're right, though; it's also important to know what they'd do in a situation they're unprepared for! Unpredictability (within reason) is a good place to start in crafting compelling characters.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Peggy--I've found that even if I don't use the exact ideas, I've brainstormed enough to really keep things fresh. :)

Laura--Good point. We also need to keep our situations believable so we don't lose our readers along the way!