The Importance of Complicating Characters
The summer after he and I graduated high school, my friend (for the sake of anonymity, let’s call him Ed, even though his real name is Joe), had perhaps his first truly adult date with his girlfriend (get your mind out of the gutter; I don’t mean it that way). That is, Ed went to her house one summer evening, where she had cooked a romantic dinner for them.
His girlfriend, (let’s call her Esmeralda, because, why the hell not,?) had spent the day preparing a three course meal. Salad, spaghetti with veal parmigiana (which for the sake of not offending vegetarians, we’ll call eggplant parmigiana) and a dessert of, well, who cares, because in this anecdote, we’re not going to get to dessert.
The Perils of Culinary Appropriation
It’s important to note Joe, sorry, “Ed,” is 1/2 Italian and was raised in a home, which I can personally attest to, which had a reliable stream of remarkably good Italian food. Next level stuff. Equally vital to know is that Esmeralda is, well…the furthest possible ethnic iteration of 1/2 Italian. Let’s say, I don’t know, 1/2 Korean, 1/4 Icelandic, and 1/4 Wonder Bread.
I think we know where this is headed. Ed ate the meal, the conversation no doubt pleasant, because Ed is congenitally incapable of not making pleasant conversation. In my mind’s eye, there was even a violinist on hand to play for them, but since this took place in her suburban kitchen, that’s likely not true. It was only at the meal’s conclusion that things took an unfortunate turn. For reasons lost to history, Esmeralda asked a fatal question, and the die was cast: “What did you think of dinner?” Ed must have been mum on the topic until now. Which should have perhaps been a hint, but maybe she was distracted by the lack of violin music.
When Ed offered his best white lies, she sweetly swatted them away, and said, “No, really; I want to know what you really thought. Seriously.” (n.b. Just as there likely wasn’t a violinist, there definitely wasn’t a stenographer, so I’m ball-parking the dialogue here) Oh, Ed. “Well, to be honest, the pasta was sort of sticky…” and this was the gentlest critique he offered. He went down the menu like a rabbi studying the Talmud and offered a specific – perhaps at times even granular – litany of the meal’s many misfires in both conception and execution as he saw them.
It was only as he was summing up that he noticed Desdemona’s (I’ve decided I prefer this pseudonym to Esmeralda) face turn into collage of hurt, embarrassment, and, I have to believe, at least a few dashes of anger. Looking at her face and now frantically concerned with saving his own skin, Ed hurriedly came up with a sentence he hoped would act as a verbal Heimlich Maneuver, propelling the foot he’d lodged in his mouth safely free. “On the other hand, you make a mean salad.”
Spoiler alert: the foot never budged.
What the Hell, Ed?
Now, if this were a scene in a play or movie, it could be written and played as comic or cruel, or, since so much of comedy is founded on cruelty, a bit of both. And, depending on the tac it took, we would find Ed either an ungrateful, deeply insensitive, perhaps even mean-spirited jerk, or a clueless, dim-witted narcissist.
Wait, Aren’t You Close Friends with Ed?
I’m getting to that. Here’s what makes this story, one whose deathless punchline I know is in fact, verbatim, because it is so memorable among our friends (hell, even my kids know about this story about their Uncle Joe, which is pet name they have for Ed): Ed is the precise opposite of all of the above-mentioned qualities. He’s a tremendously bright, unusually kind, upbeat, and empathetic soul. I’ve literally never met anyone who knows him who doesn’t flat out adore him. And believe me, I’ve searched.
This, for his family and friends, is such a memorable anecdote because it’s such a startling contrast with everything we associate with him. We, now understanding the larger context of his nature, realize this was a result of a flaw in Ed. It’s one most of us have at 18, and it’s not a tragic flaw by any means, but a flaw nonetheless: naivety. This flaw – foible, really – led to behavior antithetical to everything we know about him. Yet, given the givens, it was not only utterly plausible, but in a way, inevitable.
Let’s Be Honest: We’ve All Done Something Like This. Well, Not on This Level. We’re Not Monsters.
And we’ve all had moments like this. It’s perfectly fine to have protagonists (in fact, many feel it’s preferable) who are demonstrably good, decent people. I believe strongly your protagonist is under no obligation to be good or decent, but more on that in a second. But if your protagonist is nothing but nice, you’ve written one hell of a boring character.
To err is human, as the saying goes, but it’s also the basis of good dramatic development. I’d argue (not sure why I’m using the subjunctive here, as I clearly am making this argument) your first obligation as a writer re: character development – your only obligation – is to make that character interesting. And while showing flaws and/or contradictions in characters isn’t enough in itself to clear that benchmark, without them, you’ve got no chance whatsoever.
Do I Contradict Myself? Of Course I Do, I’m a Person
Writing a character you want the audience to root for? Terrific, but if you don’t give her some contradictions – ambivalence about a situation or relationship, a weakness for something or someone which impairs her judgment and leads to foolish or even cruel decisions – something that saves her from perfection, well, blech. Or even worse, yawn. In a worst case scenario, your audience will not connect with the character, because none of us are without shortcomings, and you may even end up having the audience rooting against your character as smug or pollyanna or…pick one.
If you want your character to be unlikable, it’s generally a lot more interesting in any non-action movie context (and even then, I’d argue) for us to get a glimpse why they have gotten to this place. I’m an acolyte of the notion that the audience doesn’t need to know everything motivating the characters at all times, but you have to at least give them a glimpse. And the most efficient and interesting way is to have them act, if only for a moment, in a way that runs against their perceived grain. If the character inflicts emotional cruelty (knowingly or unknowingly, another choice you’ll need to let the audience in on) throughout 9/10ths of the script, giving them a moment of sensitivity, or showing them to have a side that belies their actions, buys your character instant psychological credibility and the audience an keener interest.
You Don’t Win Friends with Salad
I’m obviously not stating anything most of us don’t know at least intuitively. Yet, given how basic this writing truism is, it’s amazing how often we can let it get away from us. As George Orwell observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And this is one such instance of that axiom. Remember, in the end, the Salad Story, as it’s known in certain quarters, is retold in laughter because we know Ed’s innate goodness, and it’s this radical juxtaposition of that nature and his actions that night which makes the story so memorable. After all, we only know about it because Ed shared it with us, ruefully, but with a full awareness of its humor.
We still all root for him. And we always will. But few of us are willing to cook for him.