When I was 11, frustrated and sugar-crazed, I tried to open a Coke can with a steak knife. I’d broken the can’s pull-tab ring and shrewdly thought that I could plunge the knife through the aluminum seal. Instead, I plunged it fully through that flying-squirrel skin web between my thumb and forefinger. To this day, I can rub the little ball of scar tissue on that skin, and reflect on flawed decision-making.
In my mid-twenties, I was going to heat up a tortilla on an iron skillet. Having heated up many a tortilla on many a skillet, I knew that I could just hover my hand over the skillet to see how hot it was. Instead I put my hand flat on the surface of the pan. Message received!
But not quite, because years later, I did THE VERY SAME THING. Message not learned. (My book, Cooking with Tom—or Cooking Tom, available now.)
This is not to emphasize that I’m an idiot (though one could argue), but that people often do things that we puzzle over. Arming your fictional characters with specific eccentricities or traits—hates cats, never turns left unless forced to, starts a book by reading the last page—is a way to anchor a reader to a character, whether by delight or confusion or revulsion.
Saabs or Die
In A Man Called Ove, noted curmudgeon Ove loves Saabs. Other cars are for fools. “In the parking area, Ove sees that imbecile Anders backing his Audi out of his garage. It has those new, wave-shaped headlights, Ove notes, presumably designed so that no one at night will be able to avoid the insight that here comes a car driven by an utter shit.”
Now, Ove is always a sourpuss, but when this particular trope on the irrevocable superiority of Saabs recurs, you get a little tingle, “That Ove, what a freak!” that puts him deeper into your skin. You begin to look forward to him railing about other people’s cars.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s man-out-of-time lead character (“The Boss”) does a lot of work in the book to undermine (and make fun of) feudalism, the monarchy, and undemocratic elements of medieval England. But The Boss is never pure: he introduces modern marketing to the era, doing things like putting advertisements for soap on itinerant knights’ shields and introducing fee-based telephone service. The Boss’s commercial efforts, which are returned to over and over, is a side-plot that has the reader wondering what he’ll try to sell next.
And that bag o’ quirks can sell the reader on the character.
In Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Izzy, one of four daughters of the central character, is a black sheep of sorts. She is stubborn, opinionated, sometimes righteous, often clashing with her mother and other family members. What might first come off as a whining punk turns more into hard-won spunk when you see her bristling traits recur in new circumstance. There’s an “Oh jeez, who is she going to offend next?” kind of feeling, but when it happens again, you both react to it and further anticipate it.
Why am I telling you this? [Read more…]