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. 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.
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. 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?