Folks who’ve seen the movie As Good as it Gets know that there was something magical about the pairing of an obsessive-compulsive and an out-of-luck waitress. It wasn’t exactly a love story, but it was a story about an implausible pairing made authentic. (I’d argue that it was the “implausible” part of the equation that made the story so compelling.)
There are other such stories; one of my favorites is Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, pairing a pious Quaker with an assumed madman who’d had a stroke. And how about the classic pairing of Meggie and Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds, or Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack? These unlikely couplings don’t just work for love stories, either: consider simpleminded Lennie and his friend George in Of Mice and Men; or Frankenstein and his truly in-the-dark blind friend in Mary Shelley’s classic work; or The Outlaw Josey Wales himself and Chief Dan George (based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter–which is being re-released next month by Buccaneer Books, btw.).
A fairly recent study (Dec, ’06) from the University of Liverpool may hint at why people are so intrigued by these sorts of relationships, and it takes it down to the level of word choice.
Most people know that Shakespeare liked to play with words; in fact, he made up at least 500 of them, including leapfrog and puke (lovely, I know). He often switched up expectations, too, using a noun as a verb, for example. What scientists discovered is that when readers come across a word used in a way they don’t expect, it amps up brain activity.
“If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited,” said Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English.
That extra activity means the brain is working harder, making the reading experience more active–and possibly more memorable. In the case of character creation, focusing on unusual pairings might just make your readers sit up, clear the sand out of their eyes and wonder, eagerly, how you’re going to pull it off.
Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to reach for the Implausible-Authentic in your own writing. From character pairings to word choice, it’s a winning recipe for unboxed storytelling.
Thoughts? Chime in.
Write on, all!
photo credit: Ike615 at Flickr