A common mistake of new writers is creating characters that all sound the same. Each of them acts and thinks exactly like the writer. And why not? That’s the only person the writer can really say he understands. It takes a lot of practice, skill, and awareness to create individual characters with depth and it doesn’t happen by accident. But even when your characters begin to stand on their own two feet, you can find the interaction between characters coming across as flat. This is especially true when you are writing arguments.
Regardless of the reason you need an argument, and there are many, it is supremely important that it begin convincingly. Many is the argument I’ve read that just didn’t do it for me. I see this in screenplays all the time and it comes across as terribly forced. Suddenly characters are at one another’s throats and you’re thinking, “What? That didn’t make any sense.” The argument isn’t convincing and whatever emotional stake it was to provide, is lost.
The reason this happens so often is because arguments are usually started by an irrational response. The problem is, it is hard to think irrationally when you are writing. Writing is highly linear based on cause and effect. But in the case of irrationality, the effect doesn’t relate to the cause in a typical sense. There is a relationship, but it is different than we would normally expect. Such an irrational and yet related response can be very tough to write. Fortunately, there is a very handy trick for getting that relationship just right; related, but in a way that you can use to start that argument off just right.
Let me give you an example. Barack Obama says that we need to get guns under control. Someone who opposes him interprets this statement as being aimed at turning all Americans into slaves. On the flip side, someone declares that abortion should be illegal. Someone from the pro-Choice side interprets this statement as meaning that women should not have control over their bodies. Both cases can, and do, start whopper arguments. But what really happened?
While he may disagree with the President, does the pro-gun advocate really think that Barack Obama wants to turn everyone into slaves? Does the pro-Choice advocate really think their foe wants to take away all of a woman’s rights to her own body? Or, in both cases, are the statements intentionally and willfully misconstrued? Think about your own response to these statements. How did they make you feel? How did you want to respond? We do this all the time in our daily life, and you should do it all the time as a writer.
Next time you need to estrange two characters with an argument, look closely at what kinds of ‘people’ they are. How can one of them intentionally misconstrue the statement of another? Consider what they are passionate about and you will very quickly find them in conflict over something. Use that, just as our political leaders do, to have one character intentionally misconstrue a statement and drive a wedge between the two characters. Not only is this one of the most powerful ways to start an argument in fiction, it is also one of the biggest problems in our nation today. So, I will leave you with a question: Where do we tend to see this more than anywhere else?
Until next time,
John C. Brewer