How Being a Presumptuous Asshat Can Help Your Writing

The plot exploded! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Boston Public Library, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

A few weeks ago, I was in a pre-boarding airport line in Atlanta, to take a plane bound for Key West. Ahead of me in line was a group of people: two thirtyish men and a fiftyish couple. From their appearances, and the way they were all bantering in close quarters, I guessed that the men were the sons of the couple. The bantering was very loud, sauced with some ripe vulgarities. The younger men, both very buff and heavily tattooed, were wearing long shorts and tank tops with baseball caps turned backwards. The older man was wearing a stained t-shirt over his giant belly. He too had a baseball cap turned around backwards, long shorts and sunglasses.

All had strong Southern accents, a blessing of their Arkansas roots, the provenance of which came out later on the plane when the big older guy began a mild argument with a passenger behind him about Razorback football. He’d kept his sunglasses on when he boarded. The group was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me across the aisle, the younger men in one row and the older couple ahead of them. They continued to joke loudly with each other.

Call the Doctor (to Fix My Fixed Point of View)
Tom Bentley’s swift judgement? Rednecks. #Whycan’ttheloudhillbilliespipedown? I’d already decided they were obnoxious in the boarding line, and further cemented my judgement on the plane. Think no further on that matter, thoughtful Tom.

But as so often is the case with my presumption, and presumption in general, there was a deeper story.

But as so often is the case with my presumption, and presumption in general, there was a deeper story. That unfolded when someone up in first class had a medical incident. I never did find out what was wrong with him, but he ended up lying in the first-class aisle on his back, for at least forty-five minutes.

That was surprising, but more surprising was that when a call for doctors came over the PA, seven people stood up. Wow, we had a hospital on the plane! But what was the most surprising to presumptuous Bentley was that both the older man and his presumed wife stood up and started making their way down the aisle. They ended up not treating the stricken man only because another couple of doctors were closer to the first-class area. I watched the wife in her seat craning her neck repeatedly across the aisle to see what was being done to the patient.

Well.

Either they were doctors or they were comedians, but either way, they didn’t slip out of the category I’d assigned them, they jumped. Rednecks maybe, but certainly educated, compassionate rednecks. Very willing to help out a fellow passenger, a stranger in need. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten it wrong when I’d done that simple thing of sizing up someone in an instant. Sometimes that quick judgment is useful, a survival tactic, but much of the time it’s just paucity of imagination. How one thinks the world is how one sees the world, and knee-jerk views are a kind of calcification of the brain. I was the one eating the squirrel sandwich on that plane.

Pulling the Rug on Your Reader’s Presumptions
And will he ever steer this screed toward writing, one asks? Wheel it this way: There’s dramatic value in both torquing the presumptions of your readers, and in warping those of your characters in your story. Regarding pulling the rug on your reader’s presumptions, I’m not talking about something heavy-handedly overt, like revealing a most unlikely character as the murderer late in a mystery, or having it found out that a brain tumor was the reason your protagonist was a kleptomaniac. If we only late in a tale read that rampaging Godzilla has a soft spot in his heart for rabbits and spares only them from vaporization with his habanero breath, that’s not tilting at presumption’s windmills, but more like manipulating the wind.

I’m suggesting that every character persona has layers, hidden motivations, checked dreams, such that a staid accountant in your novel might be shown later to work nightly on carving an exquisite chess set of fantasy figures from The Hobbit.

I’m suggesting that every character persona has layers, hidden motivations, checked dreams, such that a staid accountant in your novel might be shown later to work nightly on carving an exquisite chess set of fantasy figures from The Hobbit. There’s often some real value in working against type in introducing character layers. Never in a deus ex machina way, where your sniveling coward finds his inner Hulk, but in character evolutions/enrichments over a story’s arc, where the protagonist is facing or fleeing his or her demons, and some hinted, latent layer emerges. That’s where the buttons you push aren’t the ones your reader might expect, where your country rustic knows Faulkner to the letter.

When I mentioned torquing the presumptions of the characters themselves in the story, I meant that you can get some story shift or spice from how your characters will make assumptions about other characters’ behaviors and intentions in a story. How your own characters react when their presumptions are shattered can put some cinnamon on the cake, like when Miss Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice finds out that Mr. Darcy isn’t the lout she presumed. But as in working with your readers, busting the assumptions about a character also shouldn’t be a manipulative novelty, but a tactic that beats with the story’s pulse, perhaps even at a turning point.

Don’t Doubt the Curve of the Banana Messenger
This is a somewhat soft example, but I recently collaborated on a short story in which a central character had been a well-paid executive who’d fallen from grace and become a “banana messenger.” A banana messenger was a humble vocation in the thirties, a fellow that accompanied shipments of bananas by train to ensure their safety. There was some comic touch in that, but the borked assumption would be that the character would be bitter and perhaps defensive, but instead, as his character developed, it was clear that his banana messengering made him as happy as anything in the world.

Many writers have expressed surprise when a character makes decisions or takes action in a tale that the writer hadn’t quite foreseen—if it works for the story, it’s gratifying when your characters dumbfound you. It’s never enlightening when we only work with the surface, superficial, or expected elements and themes. I remember reading long ago that Rosey Grier, the intimidating former defensive lineman for the then LA Rams, wrote a book called Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men. Playing against type: you go, Rosey!

I think I’ll be working on my presumptions and prejudices about people all of my life, but when you can do it purposefully and perceptively on a page, it might end up being called art.

So, chivalrous WUers, am I presumptuous in thinking that presumption may have clamped its incisors on your bottom in the past? Can you see ways to use presumption to advantage in your work?

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About Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he’s a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. He edits all that stuff too. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is available as an ebook on Amazon. His singing has been known to frighten the horses.

Comments

    • says

      Paula, yes, I’m suggesting that there’s a way to add measured depth/complexity to a character, progressively, though a story that can surprise or intrigue the reader.

      Maybe not in some open-the-heavens way, but in a way that looks at that person in the book/story through a different filter. But only when that serves the story organically, not as a hollow mechanism.
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  1. says

    Just be careful: the more outrageous your ‘hidden trait,’ the more it needs to be prefigured and motivated.

    We accept your story about the redneck couple because of your authority – in a novel, it might result in an ‘Oh, come on!’ and a setting aside of said novel.

    As a reader, I like to get to one of those points and realize I’ve been expecting something of the kind, not sure exactly why, down deep in my psyche.

    As a writer, I go back and put those little hints in somewhere convenient so the revelation feels satisfactory. It’s part of the job, ‘preparing the experience for the reader,’ as Sol Stein says.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 14, Scene 8

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    • says

      Oh yeah, Alicia, outrageous wouldn’t work, because that would be the dreaded machina machination that puts a false face on your characters—I think readers would then be more annoyed than attracted.

      As you suggest, those character roads shouldn’t precipitously go off cliffs or wrenchingly veer back without some road signs, however subtle, that give the driving reader a shot at surviving (and enjoying!) the story.
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  2. says

    Tom,
    I had a similar experience on a flight home from San Antonio. The dreaded announcement came over the loudspeaker, “Is there a doctor or nurse on the plane?” A non-descript middle aged woman got up and rushed to the front of the plane. She was a nurse. She took over the situation, guided the stricken passenger to lie down on the floor and calmed everybody, from the flight attendants to other passengers. When I first spotted her she was keeping to herself, reading a book. Who knew? The plane made an emergency landing in Little Rock. I think the major take-away here is that writers need to strive for complexity when developing their characters. There’s nothing less sastisfying than one-dimensional characters. They are predictable and they suck the life out of a story. Thanks for a terrific post.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

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    • says

      Blake, I’m with you—there’s so much history in all of us (some of mine I hope never surfaces in a story) and our day-to-day doings hamper us from looking at a lot of what’s there. We have to work on the surface for so many of our conventional actions, but our stories have so much more juice if we let things ripen, skin to seed.

      Oh, and on my plane, the ill man ended up being put back in a seat, with an IV hung from above, right before we landed, and paramedics took him off the plane after. Don’t know what was in the IV, but the attendants brought it out of the back up to the doctor. We do hope they won’t ever have to do any surgery with the plastic forks and knives…
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  3. says

    One of my favorite characters to write starts out as perhaps the biggest asshat I’ve written. The unpeeling of his onioney layers takes place over the course of all three books of my trilogy. I sometimes wonder if (to Alicia’s point) I’ve made his asshattery too grand to stand. I’ve had a lot of readers of book one voice their strong dislike of him, which should be fine (he’s distinctly dis-likable), as long as they read on. It seems those who have viewed his entire arc are not only surprised but mostly pleased, too. As is the case with any series, that’s all good, as I say, so long as you can keep them reading past the dislike, and on to the next in the series.

    Tricky business, this fiction writing. Sometimes it makes me feel like an asshat (sorry – love that word). Good examples and fun post, Tom! Thanks not just for always making me laugh, but for getting me thinking.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Just A Pup

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  4. says

    Vaughn, exactly: I struggled a lot with the voice/actions of a lead character in the novel I’m shopping. He’s a scoundrel, though he does have some redemptive qualities, which become clearer as the book develops. But his weaselly ways don’t ever leave.

    Because his was the first-person voice (and a loud one) that first opens the book, I began to think that was too much too soon. I ended up opening with a secondary character as the POV for the first chapter, and putting my slightly sleazy criminal as the second.

    Tricky business indeed, fiction. I’ve had better luck selling lemonade.
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  5. says

    Thank you for this, you asshat, you! I am on vacation right now, and found myself at a swimming pool, making all sorts of asshatty presumptions about my fellow swimmers. In other words, you speak my language.

    I am helping a friend with his novel; it feels a little cliche in some places and a little too “quirky for quirkiness sake” in others. This post and the wise comments are so helpful . . . I’m going to forward this to him and say, “Here. Read.” (Because yes, he and I communicate only in one-word sentences.)

    Alicia (above) makes several great points about outrageousness and believability. What a smart and helpful crew we have here at WU!

    Thanks, Tom. Happy day to you!
    Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Crow

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    • says

      Sarah, yes, we are judgment machines, aren’t we? In fact, since you took a break, I am judging those people around your swimming pool from afar, the posturers! That’ll show ’em.

      I too agree with Alicia that working a character’s development can’t be pulling a rabbit out of a hat (even an attractive rabbit), but more seeing that that rabbit can hop, hop, hop but is capable of SPRINGING! And also going back to hopping. (Man, I don’t know if that actually illustrates the point I was trying to make, but it does make me now fear rabbits.)

      Anyway, watch out for those belly-flops at the pool and happy day back at you!

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  6. says

    I loved this post. Tom, you had me laughing hard during your description of the family on the plane (how true that we judge in a snap and then, when presented with contrary information, our minds keep resisting the surprise: “But this can’t be possible. I’ve already classified them as _____!”)

    As much as your humor, I loved the wisdom that applies to writing. I’ve put down several bestselling thrillers without finishing them because the characters were too cardboard, cliche, and predictable. (Especially the villains–I mean, did they ALL have to torture animals while growing up??) Every character should offer an element of “Wow, I did not expect THAT!”

    Thanks for sharing your story with us this morning — I’m bookmarking this post.
    Christine Finlayson´s last blog post ..Thoughts on writing

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    • says

      Christine, yes, it makes things so much simpler to pigeon-hole people and things, but the losses (in depth/discernment) are obvious. I am a raging violator on those counts, but right now I’m staying in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a fascinating city, and its very otherness from my common life is making me look harder and longer at the things around me. That helps.

      And dang, I worry so much that melodrama is one of the draping curtains in the novel I just wrote, speaking of cardboard characters. Back to chiseling the stone.

      Glad you liked the post!
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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      • says

        Nothing wrong with melodrama! It’s fun to read books with characters who are over-the-top and do crazy things, even when they’re acting in stereotypical ways. But offering a hint of something unpredictable or unexpected makes them that much more interesting–just like your story from the plane.

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  7. says

    Tom–thanks for another amusing post.
    I think the short form is that, in order to surprise and/or shock readers, the writer needs to prepare in subtle ways for the moment to come, when a character acts against type.
    As for the people you saw on the plane, I have come to think my own reactions are mostly generational. I flew recently, and saw many people who looked like your rednecks. But this was a flight from Milwaukee to Detroit, so these rednecks were middle-westerners. To me–an old guy with memory traces of times when people had a sense of occasion–my fellow passengers mostly suggested the homeless, people with hand-lettered signs at intersections. But they weren’t homeless, they’d bought plane tickets.
    My point? It’s a standard bromide to caution others about how “appearances are deceiving.” Actually, for the most part, they aren’t. They’re just incomplete. Based on the details you give, I really doubt your “characters” were doctors, or even nurse’s aides. They were rubbernecker rednecks who’d already seen the movie and were bored. That is, unless you saw a stethoscope hanging out of the pocket on someone’s cargo shorts.

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    • says

      Barry, you might be right, though I’m not so sure. Because I’m an inveterate busybody, I was closely checking out their body language and behavior in their march toward the front: there was something very sober and business-like about it, much unlike their earlier boorishness.

      But even if they were just playing the moment, that gave me another good flash on people not slowly revealing their deeper layers, but as being total grifters of their own personalities—playing a con game of sorts. Though that too can be a novelist’s shallow device, and not necessarily a creative one.

      Hey, your response amused me probably more than mine did you. Not long ago, I got on a plane where a guy came on without a shirt. Must have just overlooked that small detail, eh? The attendant soon informed him that that wasn’t working on this plane. He dressed quietly.
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  8. Anjali Amit says

    Talking about presumption: I read the first two paragraphs of the post. Groaned. Rolled my eyes. Looked at your photo. Intellectual. nerdy, geek who is surprised by rednecks. Hah! How much depth can this post have?

    Boy, was I surprised.

    Typecasting: the sin of the unimaginative. Thank you for that wonderful insight

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  9. says

    Intellectual, nerdy geek? Hey, I resemble that remark! (Not certain about the “intellectual” though. Poseur, maybe.)

    I’m with you on the typecasting, Anjali—there’s a place for sizing things up quickly, but it’s surely not between the pages.

    Words: so many ways to sling ’em—best to go back to Emily Dickinson and “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  10. says

    Without a doubt. My current wip is a YA. My protag is already making presumptions about his mother’s affair and that his track team nemesis is a complete rich-kid jerk. I’ll flip those around on him as part of his character arc. I think all novels, but especially YA and MG, need to show that people are not always what they seem. Especially the bullies, the jerks, the people we most love to hate. It’s always a good lesson.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..My Indy Journey – Day 21

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  11. says

    Hey Tom:

    Wonderful piece. Among the five cornerstones of character I always teach my students, two are secrets and contradictions.

    Secrets provide an immediate sense of depth — a hidden interior and a deceptive exterior. Contradictions provide contrast by introducing details that we otherwise, from what we see of the character, would never expect.

    Without these the character is far too likely to seem flat, a plot puppet.

    Thanks for the morning jolt. Now, back to the character lab.

    David

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  12. Amber Cartriana says

    I have a secondary character like this in my book. I deliberately crafted him with a “conflicted” nature. During the year of having my chapters critiqued, he became popular because no one could figure out his angle (equal to the MC). I decided to carry him into the sequel, and then decided to make him the MC in the prequel to this finished book (because he actually was the only reasonable character who could be). I was surprised at how popular he became during the critiques. Him and another whose nature goes against stereotype labeling – which I deliberately did and he is also in the sequel. Well, once the 1st gets published :)

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    • says

      Amber, I hope those conflicted (or to steal David’s term from above, contradictory) characters make it to the published page. The complex part is the setup where the author moves from character introduction into character elaboration, through the story’s pulsings in a way so that any presumed character deviations and tilts can seem to be a reasonable (or if unreasonable, credible in context) expression of that character.

      And of course, where they make the story better.
      Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..You’re a Novel’s Character: Push the Conflict, Sí or No?

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  13. says

    Medicine cured me of a good amount of my presumptuous asshatery. I’d see refrigerator-sized guys with baritone voices faint when their wives cringed with labor pains. There were the devoted, debonair men who’d act the dream nurse while their spouses died of cancer, then turn around and date another woman the week of the funeral. I knew clean-cut couples who lived the swinging lifestyle and religious people who’d smile to my face and go home from church to beat their wives.

    Jeesh, I’m sounding a bit cynical, aren’t I? Sorry. The point being that humans ARE multi-faceted and full of contradictions, so a writer is portraying life accurately if they embed these textures into their work. Plus, on the part of the reader, discovery is just plain fun.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Two Graduations and a Funeral (Plus Writer Unboxed Redirect)

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  14. says

    Great post, thanks!

    What I love is when you’re writing along and all the sudden one of your characters says or does something that completely shocks you. If you, as the writer, didn’t foresee then how could the reader have seen it coming?

    You’re right, so long as it fits with the character’s personality, it’s a win. Play on the reader (and your) presumptions to keep the story and people fresh.
    Jack Cordwell´s last blog post ..Ah, the Bliss of Writing!

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  15. Colleen Wood says

    That was an enjoyable read. Thanks! Sometimes, the people I’m writing about do surprising things- I don’t do outlines because of this. You helped me see that it’s ok.

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  16. says

    Great post. I do love it when I am surprised by an author. Also love it when I am writing and my characters surprise me. (smile)

    Flipping presumptions goes along with something I learned in a workshop by Erma Bombeck many moons ago. When writing humor she said, we set up for something expected, then give the reader the unexpected. I think that advice works for any kind of fiction. Surprise the reader.
    Maryann Miller´s last blog post ..How’s Your Love Life?

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