Monday, July 12, 2010

Two Characters. Two Reactions.

First, I have to toot my own horn today. I found out this weekend that a short story I published in the Los Angeles Review ("Red Man, Blue Man") was selected by the editor to be used as an example of narrative tension in her fiction writing class. I'm honored!

This has put me into a great mood, so I just thought I would talk about something that always excites me when I'm writing.

One writing situation I love finding myself in is when two of my characters are forced to react to the same issue. I've been working on a story called "Satellites", and a father and daughter are both dealing with the return of a long lost family member. They go to have lunch with this family member together, but afterwards, I plan to have them react to his return in different ways..ways I have yet to figure out.

For me, this is when characters come to life. And, come to think of it, the situation arises in "Red Man, Blue Man" when each of the men decide that it's time to fall in love. What better way to emphasize individual personalities than to have them react differently to a shared situation? It was actually this very type of thing that made me start writing in the omniscient point of view, where I could get into the heads of both characters at once.

In the movie High Noon, there is a scene near the end--spoiler alert--when the main protagonist's wife (played by Grace Kelly) and his ex-lover (Katy Jurado) find themselves sitting next to each other on a train headed out of town.

Both of them have reasons for staying and reasons for leaving, but their personalities determine what each of them does in the end.

A similar situation is set up in the movie Princess Mononoke --spoiler--when two of the animal gods find themselves waiting for death.

One of the gods decides to face death calmly while the other is full of rage. Just thinking about this type of set up makes my mouth water!

Have you found yourself in this type of writing situation? Did you use it as an opportunity to contrast your characters and bring them to life?


  1. My middle act for Fate's Guardian tells two stories, one from the present and one from the characters' past life, where similar circumstances lead to very different results. Still a WIP, if I'm lucky I'll be able to pull it off.

  2. First of all, congratulations on your story! I need to read that one again. I remember liking it a lot.

    I've never written anything in omniscient point of view, but what you're describing here sounds like the perfect reason to try it! I think anytime we get two characters together with opposing visions and ideas over something crucial to the storyline is a great opportunity for the best sort of tension.

    Rick, that sounds fun to do a similar thing with only one character!

  3. I haven't thought about it in quite this way, but i do it. I will pay more attention to it from now on and try to really let the personalities shine through because i do love these kind of moments. Thanks for the tip. Oh and congrats on the short story being selected very awesome. I really enjoyed the short story you wrote for Michelle's short story contest. I liked the way someone she barely knew became important to her. People touch our lives in so many different ways.

  4. Oh yeah; been there, done that. I love contrasting characters. I do this to my MC in my novel to show how different she is from her friends. But her discrepancies in reactions also stir emotions in the reader.


  5. One of the funnest writing experiences I ever did was take one scene and show it from the viewpoint of different characters. Every character saw something different. It was great.

    I do this a lot with my writing - one event + multiple reactions = lots of fun. I mean, isn't it human nature for everybody to view and react to things differently? So, why shouldn't our characters do the same.

    Congrats on the honor, btw! I'm impressed.


  6. Rick, that sounds very interesting. In my story Rooster, I have some of those types of parallels, but they are minor at best.

    Michelle, thanks! I started using omniscient because I was realizing that all of my favorite stories were told this way. I'd love to see you try it! And, I'm sure you know, but I'll say it anyway. This type of situation can work with any type of POV. (For me, omniscient is just the most fun!)

    Mary, thanks for saying those nice things about "Bohemian"! We are all rushing around so much that I'm very grateful that you and others took the time to read the entire story.

    Donna, there is a very interesting dynamic in that, isn't there? I was just telling someone yesterday that a character will seem pretty if other characters in the story think she is pretty. Creating character reactions can help to control reader reactions.

    Scott, that type of situation is definitely fun! I remember reading one of your stories along those lines and it was very interesting. When done well, it's really amazing how one writer can create so many different personalities.

  7. That is so cool about your short story! You must be walking on clouds (I would!)
    I love what you bring up about contrasting the reaction. Since I've been writing in third person, I can only do it by what the POV character sees. I may enhance some of those scenes, thinking about your post. Good tip.

  8. Congrats on your story!

    Characters who contrast with each other are called foils:

    I agree that foils are a great way to illustrate differences in characters. In my WIP, I have a scene where the main character reveals a secret to his sister and two best friends. They all have different reactions to the news.

  9. Very good for you that your story's being taught--congratulations and keep at it!!

  10. Sandra, foils are my favorite! I did a post here about foils last year, and it didn't dawn on me that this might be what Davin's talking about. I think, though, that he might be looking at it from a different viewpoint than a foil.

    My post is here: here

  11. Tricia, Although I've never done it, I think the third person POV would work well for this. I'm sure I've read works that do it this way. Thanks for the support!

    Sandra, I think foils definitely fall into this situation. For me, though, a foil emphasizes more of opposites, which would work well. But, I think different reactions (as opposed to opposite) are also very interesting. More and more I don't think in terms of opposites. I like to make things messier than that. Scott and Michelle know how I like to complicate things!

    FP, thanks! I was just commenting on your blog when I you commented here. I really like that story of mine. It's one of my favorites, and maybe only one of three that I think are really strong. It's being used in a narrative tension class, which is funny to me because I'm not sure there's much narrative tension there, but I do like the story!

  12. Very excellent news, Davin!!

    I was thinking this thought: about how people who experience the same event but recall it so differently when I was in a huge family reunion last year. I toyed with writing a story based on that but the actual events that come to mind have all been too close to reality, so I'll have to create some different situations.

  13. I can't seem to find Red Man, Blue Man anymore--but I remember saying it was good. You've got more than three really strong ones. Maybe another will be taught in a classroom somewhere soon--you never know....

    To me, narrative tension is more about what the author does than what the characters do. If I'm not mistaken, your voice in RMBM is ambivalent-sounding. Maybe that's the writing-technical reason it's been picked for that specific class.

  14. F.P., I had taken the story down when I decided to submit it, so that's why you can't find it. I'll send it to you in case you want to look at it. It is very ambivalent. That's something I was focused on. I didn't think that would cause tension, but maybe it does. Tension is something I don't understand very well. I've been paying a lot of attention to it lately, though.

  15. Yat-Yee, if you write this story, let me know. I wrote about a similar thing, a true event of a large party I was at where someone jumped through a plate glass window. In my hands, the story never really worked, but I think it had potential.

  16. One of my favorite things that stories can do is examine a single event from a variety of perspectives, either through different characters or over time. The event is fixed, more or less, but the interpretations are all relative and can shift around. I do a lot of stuff with opposition like this in my writing. I also like to have the dual reactions happening simultaneously, with people talking at cross-purposes about something and misunderstanding each other because they think they agree on the meaning of an event but they actually don't.

    Congrats about RM/BM. That's one of my favorite Big D stories.

  17. I think there is internal tension and external tension--I remember that story had internal tension, a pulling and tenseness in different directions. There was some struggle "underneath," felt by the reader but not necessarily seen by the reader. Or it could be just I am perceiving it: I tend to focus on reading "between the lines." Sometimes writers don't realize all the stuff they've actually included between the lines. This has happened with my own work, where I didn't realize something inside it until I'd reread it years later. Sometimes these revelations are good things, sometimes they're bad things.

    But I'll see what I think once I've reread RMBM. I've read it twice already; this will be the third time. I usually won't comment on fiction unless I've read at least parts of it twice.

    For a real-life illustration of tension, if you're ever in New York, seek out the Verazzano Narrows Bridge and look at it, especially at its cables. I can't think of a better illustration of the power of tension!

  18. Oh--I should have added that because I'm more focused on the between-the-lines stuff, I'm sometimes looking for it, so may wind up positive-confirmation-wise seeing stuff that isn't there! It's possible.

    But in your case, even simply your title sounds ambivalent, contains tension. Red Man, Blue Man--like, which is it???

  19. Congratulations on having your story chosen, Davin. As for me, my current work-in-progress is utilizing the technique of telling the story from the viewpoint of three main characters, each of whom is mystified by the actions of the others. I find this technique fun because it mirrors real life ... one usually does not really know what the other person experiencing the same situation is seeing/feeling.

  20. Big time congrats, Davin. That is awesome. So is your question though. I haven't had the opportunity to construct something this good, but it's a great idea. Good luck.

  21. Red Man Blue Man was a great story. I wish I had a hard copy of it, I'd like to read it again. Is it for sale somewhere?

    I have one series where the same scene is shown through the eyes of different characters at different points in the story. But I think you might be talking about something else: different characters reactions to the same events told almost simultaneously.

    I had a book I originally wrote in omni, but my problem was that it then felt too "detached." Sometimes omni is used deliberately to create a bit of distance between the narrator and the events, but is there also a way to keep omni feeling intimate and immediate?

  22. Davin: I started a story earlier today. I have some strong ideas about two of the three characters. The third is still a bit fuzzy. I am not using omniscient: in the first person's head right now. Will let you know how the rest turns out.

  23. Congratulations on your story. I think the idea you're approaching in your work is very interesting indeed.

    I am new to your blog so pardon my ignorance, but did you post the story on the blog initially?

  24. Tara Maya and wordsareforwriting,

    I had originally posted the story, but I took it down when I finished it and was submitting it. I'm happy to send a word doc to either of you if you email me at .

    Tara Maya, for intimate omni, I'd recommend Virginia Woolf. Have you ever read anything of hers? To The Lighthouse, at least in my opinion, does exactly what you're asking about. I personally think Tolstoy does it too.

  25. Congratulations Davin! That must feel good!!.

    I'd love to read that story too- can i email you too, for a word doc of it?



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