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The Small and Mighty Ampersand: Creating Delightful, Messy Characters

Photo compliments of Flickr's John Bell.
Photo compliments of Flickr’s John Bell [1].

Today, friends, without charging you a co-pay or forcing you to read your HIPA rights, I am going to share with you the single most important words my mechanic (AKA my therapist) ever said to me.

First though, some context. Around the time of this pivotal tune-up session (circa 2008), I had two tiny children, a mental illness, and a husband who was travelling for work, often to Tel Aviv and Mexico City, Rome and Detroit. During that particular tune-up session, he was in Bangkok, probably at a spy convention or Navy SEAL training. No one believes he’s actually in software sales.

With the time change between Seattle and Bangkok, exorbitant international phone charges, and I assume much tuk-tuk riding on his part, we weren’t able to speak to each other on the phone. It was odd, having no way to reach him, something I had not experienced for as long as we had known each other. I didn’t like it, not one bit. But I realized something surprising while he was away, and sitting on my mechanic’s couch that afternoon, I shared my news.

“You know what?” I said, “I’ve always been so terrified about what I would do if something happened to my husband. But for some reason, this trip made me realize if something did happen to him, it would be awful, terrible, horrible. I mean, it would be devastating.” I took a breath. “But I would survive.”

My mechanic, a Christian-cum-Buddhist-priest, smiled in that peaceful way and nodded his shaved head. “No . . . it would be awful, terrible, horrible. And you would survive.”

I thought about that for a moment, most likely eyeing him as I always eye wise, bald Christian-cum-Buddhists. Of course he was right. I would be devastated and I would survive. Both sides of that sentence could be simultaneously true.

Ever since, I have been using the and in other arenas: I love my children and they drive me batty. Having a mental illness is painful and it is beautiful. I like dark chocolate and milk chocolate.

There is something empowering and freeing in using and in place of but, which I suppose makes sense. But is a word that limits someone or something. And is a word that increases someone or something. These conjunctions-junctions really do have important functions.

What happens when humans embrace the and in life?

Human beings are not fixed in or limited to a single personality type. I think that’s delightful. My friend, Jane, is a passionate Christian and a skilled user of profanity. The clerk at our local organic store speaks five languages fluently and has no education beyond a GED. My thirteen-year-old son forgets that we don’t leave muddy soccer cleats on the kitchen counter and he remembers every score of every soccer game he has ever played. No one is ever one thing or another. We are messy mixes of one thing and another.

What happens when writers accept the and in the writing life?

By using the and in our writing life, we can embrace the simultaneous presence of the bumps and wheeeee’s all writers experience. See if any of these resonate: My road to publication is long, difficult and frustrating, and I will persevere. Writerly rejection is terribly painful and completely necessary. I dislike Amazon for squeezing out the little guys and I am an Amazon Prime member.

Using and as we experience a writer’s journey helps us embrace all parts of the adventure. The writer’s journey is expansive and limitless, and that’s a good thing.

What happens when fictional characters embody the and?

Consider the characters found in fairy tales: the handsome prince, the wicked stepmother, the imprisoned princess, the evil old lady who wants to cook and eat children. Fairy tales provide important lessons of good and evil, of right and wrong, but they don’t tend to offer models of rich, messy characters that evolve along a character arc.

And that’s a little boring.

In most genres of fiction, it’s the messy characters, the characters with conflicting, coexisting traits, feelings or desires, that reel in a reader. In A Man Called Ove, the grumpy, elderly Ove is cantankerous and mean and generous and endearing.  In Olive Kitteridge, Olive is nasty and tough and compassionate and broken. Mad Men’s Don Draper is a dashing womanizer and a terrified, insecure little boy.

We read fiction in part because we seek and adore characters that disturb and delight us through the revelation of their whole person. Remember the surprises in the novel Gone Girl and films like Chinatown and The Usual Suspects. Delicious, right? We don’t like discovering that our partners, families or friends are not who we thought, but when we experience surprise and betrayal through characters and their stories? Our fancies are tickled.

We can create characters that surprise, tickle and poke at our readers by returning to the fleshy humanness of real people. Notice the difference between these two pairs of statements:

JFK was an adored President but an unfaithful husband.

JFK was an adored President and an unfaithful husband.

Mother Teresa was faithful to God, but at times, she doubted His goodness.

Mother Teresa was faithful to God, and at times, she doubted His goodness.

The but sentences limit these people’s complexity. And does the opposite, increasing their humanness as well as the potential for intrigue. How fascinating that such a beloved POTUS loved too many women! Even Mother Teresa experienced doubts about her faith? Wow. Cool.

Let’s then turn to our works-in-progress as we consider and develop contrasting elements of our characters’ personality, desires, feelings and actions. The answers to these questions might help determine the arc of a messy character and allow her to evolve (or devolve) between Page One and The End.

Now you. Will you share where you see an and (contrasting feelings or desires that coexist) within the protagonist of your work-in-progress? How does this and affect your character’s actions?Outside of your work-in-progress, where do you see someone (real or fictional) who exemplifies the and? How can I figure out whether my gentle giant of a husband is CIA and not software sales?

About Sarah Callender [2]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.