Have you ever felt out of place? I’m sure. We all have. Meeting the new in-laws. An interfaith church service. Asking the price of a necklace at Tiffany’s. The ER. CIA headquarters in Langley. Strange environments where people are different.
One summer day commuting to work on my bike, I stopped at Sander’s Bakery on Lee Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Williamsburg. A bakery is a bakery, right? Well, no. Sander’s is in the heart of Brooklyn’s vast Chasidishe, ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The shop was filled with men in long sideburns wearing black coats, Tzizit vests and beaver hats. Women wore wigs, calf length skirts and sturdy shoes. All spoke Yiddish. The shelves were brimming with challah, strudel, rugelach, kippelech, sufganiyot, Napoleon cake and cookies.
In my jeans, black tee and bike helmet, I stood out. Customers avoided my eyes. I am goyim. A non-Jew. An outsider, suspicious, not unwelcome but not welcome either. Cyclists have been attacked in South Williamsburg. To some, I would be less than human. Some, I knew, might believe that I literally lack a soul.
But hey, why should that stop me? I was there for cinnamon rugelach. The gentleman behind the counter accepted my money and spoke kindly. I bothered no one and left quickly. The rugelach was delicious. No one was hostile. The stereotypes of Hasidim are stereotypes. (Gay bashers, child molesters, women oppressors, bad drivers? Please.) The Hasidic world is not my world, it’s just their world and so what? They are entitled to live according to their faith. And, hey, they have cinnamon rugelach.
In that trivial anecdote, note a couple of things. The different place: South Williamsburg. The different cultures: beaver hats versus my bike helmet. The resolution: They are different but we find something in common in yummy cinnamon rugelach.
Most of all, though, note the source of tension. Goyim. Outsider. Cyclists have been attacked in South Williamsburg. Those feelings came not from anyone inside Sander’s Bakery. They came from me. When worlds collide, visual differences create contrast, true, but what creates conflict is the apprehension inside of a POV character.
When worlds collide, it is mostly inside.
In a way, all stories are about a collision between two worlds. Some stories literally smash two cultures together. Shogun. The Poisonwood Bible. The Narnia Chronicles. Others are built around class conflict. The Great Gatsby. Poldark. Never Let Me Go. Others are built around generational conflicts or family clashes. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Middlesex. Pachinko. In others, a stranger rides into town or there is an encounter with “others”. Shane. The Joy Luck Club. The Left Hand of Darkness. Conflict can be poured into the very foundation of a novel.
However, put together any two people and you necessarily have clashing contexts, assumptions and needs. Everyone has a back story. Everyone is searching. Everyone is yearning. Everyone is journeying. We are worlds unto ourselves. When those worlds meet there is a collision. We feel different. We feel dislocated. We feel afraid. We feel “other”.
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, whose father is a union organizer in 1930’s New York City. As the novel opens, Anna goes with her father to the grand seaside home of Dexter Styles, a gangster and club owner, for whom her father will become a “bagman”, passing out bribes. Their arrival introduces Anna to a different world.
The door pull was answered by Mrs. Styles, who had a movie star’s sculpted eyebrows and a long mouth painted glossy red. Accustomed to judging her own mother prettier than every woman she encountered, Anna was disarmed by the evident glamour of Mrs. Styles.
“I was hoping to meet Mrs. Kerrigan,” Mrs. Styles said in a husky voice, holding Ann’s father’s hand in both of hers. To which he replied that his younger daughter had taken sick that morning, and his wife had stayed home to nurse her.
There was no sign of Mr. Styles.
Politely but (she hoped) without visible awe, Anna accepted a glass of lemonade from a sliver tray carried by a Negro maid in a pale blue uniform. In the high polish of the entrance hall’s wood floor, she caught the reflection of her own red dress, sewn by her mother. Beyond the windows of an adjacent front room, the sea tingled under a thin winter sun.
Mrs. Style’s daughter, Tabatha, was only eight—three years younger than Anna. Still, Anna allowed the littler girl to tow her by the hand to a downstairs “nursery,” a room dedicated purely to playing, filled with a shocking array of toys. A quick survey discovered a Flossie Flirt doll, several large teddy bears, and a rocking horse. There was a “Nurse” in the nursery, a freckled, raspy-voiced woman whose woolen dress strained like an overstacked bookshelf to repress her massive bust. Anna guessed from the broad lay of her face and the merry switch of her eyes that Nurse was Irish, and felt a keen sense of being seen through. She resolved to keep her distance.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles concerns an aristocratic Russian count and dilettante poet named Alexander Rostov, who in the wake of the Revolution is sentenced to house arrest in his residence, the Metropole Hotel. Rostov at first adjusts to his confinement by attempting to maintain his daily routines. One midday he repairs to the basement establishment of the Metropole’s peerless barber, Yaroslav Yaroslavl, for his weekly trim. A heavyset man is also waiting, but Yaroslavl seats Rostov first. The heavyset man insists, “I was next.” Rostov tries to defuse the situation.
“Yaroslav meant no offense, my good man. It just so happens that I have a standing appointment at twelve o’clock on Tuesdays.
The fellow now turned his glare upon the Count.
“A standing appointment,” he repeated.
Then he rose so abruptly that he knocked his bench back into the wall. At full height, he was nor more than five foot six. His fists, which jutted from the cuffs of his backset, were as red as his ears. When he advanced a step, Yaroslav backed against the edge of the counter. The fellow took another toward the barber and wrested one of the scissors from his hand. Then, with the deftness of a much slighter man, he turned, took the Count by the collar, and severed the right wing of his moustaches with a single snip. Tightening his hold, he pulled the Count forward until they were nose to nose.
“You’ll have your appointment soon enough,” he said.
When he had first seen him sitting on the bench in his rumpled jacket, the Count had summed him up in an instant as some hardworking sort who, having stumbled upon the barbershop, had decided to treat himself to a cut. But for all the Count knew, this fellow could have been one of the new residents of the second floor. Having come of age in an ironworks, he could have joined a union in 1912, led a strike in 1916, captained a Red battalion in 1918, and now found himself in command of an entire industry.
“He was perfectly right,” the Count said to Yaroslav.
The Diviners by Libba Bray is a Jazz Age YA horror novel in which budding young flapper Evie O’Neil is sent by her distraught parents from stuffy Zenith, Ohio to New York City to reside (until a scandal cools off) with her Uncle Will, who owns a museum of the occult and macabre. Liberated, so she imagines, Evie rushes to meet a friend, the plain-but-game Mabel, so together they can plan wild Manhattan adventures. At their apartment building, the Bennington, Evie is introduced to two dowager sisters, Lillian and Adelaide Proctor, whose dour aura clashes with Evie’s effervescent spirit:
“Welcome to the Bennington. It’s a grand old place. Once upon a time, it was considered one of the very best addresses in the city,” Miss Lillian continued.
“It’s swell. Um, lovely. A lovely place.”
“Yes. Sometimes you might hear odd sounds in the night. But you mustn’t be frightened. The city has its ghosts, you see.”
“All the best places do,” Evie said with mock-seriousness.
Mabel choked on her Coca-Cola, but Miss Lillian did not take note. “In the seventeen hundreds, this patch of hand was home to those suffering from the fever. Those poor, tragic souls moaning in their tents, jaundiced and bleeding, their vomitus the color of black night!”
Evie pushed her sandwich away. “How hideously fascinating. I was just saying to Mabel—Miss Rose—that we don’t talk enough about black vomit.”
Dislocated. Out of place. Out of time. Stranger in a strange land. Every protagonist is, in a way, confronted with what is unaccustomed, odd and fearful. All heroes feel lost, out of their depth, unable at first to fathom the new environment in which they find themselves. That is as true whether they are close to home or far away. It’s true, always, because dislocation is felt inside.
To capture the dislocation inherent in a collision of worlds, one need only resolve to get it on the page:
- Where and when does your protagonist find his or her world in collision with another? Whose? Detail the differences visually. What details cause your protagonist to feel inferior, out of place, uneasy or apprehensive?
- Of what is your protagonist envious? What does your protagonist dislike? Who in this new world judges or rejects your protagonist? Whom does your protagonist wish to know better, or hope to avoid at all costs?
- How does your protagonist know that he or she stands out? What about him or her was previously considered normal, but is now glaringly out of place? Who notices that—or pretends not to?
- How does your protagonist adjust, apologize, defer, cover, or debase himself or herself in this new environment? What about himself or herself will have to change?
- In what way is your protagonist determined not to change? Having been challenged, in what way is he or she resolved to resist?
When stars collide in outer space, they send off gravitational waves and gamma rays. The collision also creates heavy elements such a gold, platinum and lead, which are flung across the universe. (The gold in your wedding band was formed by colliding stars.) A collision between the worlds of two characters is similar. Its waves ripple through the story—and through your protagonist. The collision has force, and it in turn forces change.
The collision of stars—and worlds—also creates light.
What two worlds collide in your story? How do we see the differences? How does your protagonist experience dislocation?
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