Packing Peanut Scenes

I am writing a book, and no matter how much I have going on during a given day, I make sure to spend at least an hour on it. A few days ago, about a third of that hour was spent researching Filipino dishes. As I began googling, I worried that I was wasting my writing time. Or rather, the invisible critic looking over my shoulder mocked me for wasting my writing time. I believe its exact words were “isn’t this just an excuse for procrastination, you loser hack?” In retrospect, I’m glad I ignored it. I’ve used research as procrastination before, but I’ve broken that habit, and this time, it was necessary.

I don’t have much trouble with the big scenes; the foreboding setups, the twists, the climaxes and resolutions and so on. The ones that give me trouble are the scenes that have to get me from each of those to the next. They are the scenes between the characters meeting and having the big fight that threatens the relationship, which show the readers what each character is like, which in turn makes the readers decide whether they want the characters to stay together or not. They are the scenes which show the conflicts of personality and prevent the fight from being a plot device that springs from nowhere.

My metaphor for these scenes is packing peanuts, because that encompasses what they are at both their best and their worst. Imagine a story as a package you are sending to the reader. The shiny toy or appliance or whatever else is in the package is the essence of the story; the major characters, the big events, everything that would go into Wikipedia summary of the book. The journey the package takes from your house to theirs is the actual reading of the book, and only once the last page has finished does the reader have your story. Just as a packages often require packing peanuts to get to their destination in one piece, a book needs to be more than just the major events. It needs descriptions, quiet moments of introspection, foreshadowing, small scenes that don’t further the plot much but do help the reader understand the characters and the world they live in.

However, when there are too many of these scenes, or they are written sloppily, they become dreaded “filler.” In this metaphor, those are those boxes so stuffed with packing peanuts that as you root around for the actual product, you wonder if you were shipped an empty box by mistake. Or perhaps they are those plastic shells that are impossible to take off without slicing your finger open. They get in the way of the reader getting to the story, instead of helping it to get to them.

They are often also the hardest to teach someone how to write, because, just as you have to adjust the packaging to every package, you need different packing peanut scenes for each story. They are also what make your story unique. Its in these scenes that you have the space to shape your characters into people more than just Spunky Sidekick or Messiah Archetype. It’s where you make your villain’s traitorous reveal seem like it sprung from who they are, not the dictates of the genre.

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!
Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

These scenes need to be told as vividly and carefully as any other in your story. I find that to write a scene, whether a major event or a packing peanut, its not enough for me to know what’s happening. I need to see it. I need to smell it. In the scene I was working on, my character’s sister’s boyfriend is meeting the family, and my character doesn’t want to deal with him. She is, for very good reasons, terrible with people, and while she wants him to feel welcomed she also can’t stand being around him and her sister and their lovey-dovey normality. She tries to escape the situation without offending anybody by hiding out in the kitchen, and I realized I didn’t know what was in there. I made a list of Filipino foods, I looked up how to cook them, I put myself in the head of the cook to decide which one he was making that night (this one is too difficult, that one too expensive, this one not special enough for the occasion), all so that, when I wrote the scene from the perspective of the character making her escape, I would know exactly what the kitchen smelled like, and what dishes were piled in the sink. Twenty minutes of research for a few sentences in a scene most readers won’t remember by the time they get to the end, but that would make that scene real in my head. Because it was real in my head, in came out feeling real on the page, and because it felt real on the page, that packing peanut will get the readers to the scene where… well, spoilers. Point is, it was worth it.

Myths of the Nice Guy

A friend of mine posted a link to this article, saying that a guy she had been on a few dates with had posted it with clear passive-aggressive notes that it was about her. It’s rare that I actually read something sincerely written that extols the Nice Guy(TM), and I had sort of forgotten that these are myths that a lot of people still buy into. What makes it more interesting is that this article was apparently written by a woman. The core myths that sustain the “Nice Guys undeservedly lose women to assholes” trope are not just perpetuated by the rejected males; they’re pervasive in our culture.

I want to break down the core myths, the false beliefs that are at the heart of this trope.

1) A person can deserve another person’s romantic interest.

Discussion about dating and relationships is fraught with this idea of being “enough”: pretty enough, wealthy enough, charming enough, sexy enough. When facing rejection, a natural impulse is to look at yourself and think, Where did I fall short? What aspect of myself is lacking, where did I fall below the standard? This is a boon to a capitalist culture, where rejection naturally drives consumption as people strive to become “enough” that someone will want them.

But it’s all a myth. There’s no standard of beauty or achievement or goodness that inoculates a person from romantic rejection. There is no level someone can reach that means they can have whoever they want. If you don’t think movie stars get their hearts broken, think again.

The truth is that romantic interest — and still more sustained love and commitment — don’t come when we’ve reached a certain level of merit, whether that merit is superficial or deep. They come when we set off fireworks in someone else’s head and groin; when actually being together (as opposed to the ideas and fantasies we have about being together) is joyful and fulfilling for both of us. There are a lot of factors that contribute to whether that happens, but most of it is the chance of compatibility: something about me pings with something about you, and when we’re together it’s good. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not something you can fake and it’s not something you can earn.

The myth of merit in love is destructive on so many levels. A lot of people stay in bad or just unfulfilling relationships, simply because they can’t come up with anything “wrong with” their partner… because they feel like they don’t get to walk out of a relationship that’s not making them happy unless the partner has fallen below a certain merit standard. Or, in order to feel justified in leaving, someone will magnify and distort the other person’s flaws and weaknesses, rather than just accepting that the joy of intimacy just wasn’t there and didn’t feel recoverable.

It’s much healthier all around to just acknowledge that the vast majority of people won’t feel that spark of desire, that pull toward intimacy, with you, just like you don’t feel it toward most people. And in declining to begin or continue a romantic connection with you, they’re not taking away something you’ve earned: they’re doing both of you the favor of not faking something they don’t feel.

2) Women (and optionally men) who don’t want long-term commitment are broken.

This one is all over the above-linked article. The Nice Guy(TM) typically wants a girlfriend, possibly a wife, definitely not just a fling. And he’s obviously the best prospect for that! He might not be the most exciting one-night-stand out there, but he’ll be a great boyfriend and buy you flowers and make you breakfast in bed, and that’s what you really want. If you reject him in favor of the hot one-nighter, it’s a sign of how damaged you are.

There is no room in the Nice Guy mythos for the idea that a woman might not be interested in settling down to flowers and breakfast — maybe not this year, maybe not ever. There’s definitely no room in the Nice Guy mythos for the idea that sometimes a girl just wants a good shag. She might think she wants that, but that just goes to show that she hasn’t experienced real love, the kind only Nice Guys can dish out. If she’d stop and give him a chance, she’d suddenly realize that he’s offering what she wanted all along, no matter how much she thought she loved flirting and casual hookups and the freedom of single life.

Which brings us to…

3) The Nice Guy knows what’s best for you.

This paragraph gave me the heebie-jeebies:

He ignored your fears and forced you to grow; he fought for your passions when you were too busy writing them off. He forgot your wants and focused on everything you needed. Then you walked away because he was too nice.

At its best, this is the tale of codependence. At its worst, it’s a picture of emotional abuse.

A good partner doesn’t ignore your fears: a good partner understands and shows compassion for them. A good partner doesn’t force you to do anything, even grow: a good partner encourages and supports your growth, and makes sure that it’s in the direction you’ve chosen for yourself. A good partner doesn’t rank their lover’s desires into “wants” and “needs” so that they can discard whichever ones they’ve deemed inessential. Nor do they decide unilaterally what their partner needs and push them into it.

The paragraph became slightly less creepy when I realized it was written by a woman, but it’s still disturbing. Maybe you didn’t walk away because he was too nice. Maybe you walked away because he was controlling and domineering, because he felt like he had the right to decide what you needed and how you needed to grow and how you should be investing your time and energy. Maybe there was something in the pit of your stomach that said, “This isn’t right, I don’t feel whole and myself in this relationship, I have to get out.” And maybe he’s so successfully spun his “Nice Guy” narrative that in time you came to believe it, to believe that walking out on him was a sign of how broken you are, to believe that the best thing you could hope for was to get him back. (And maybe, if he did take you back, he would use every scrap of that shame and self-judgement you internalized to keep you believing that yes, he deserves the amount of control over you, and that if you’re not happy and feel stifled and small in the relationship, it’s your fault.)

Maybe not. I don’t know this writer’s life. I do know that Nice Guy rhetoric can go beyond the normal entitlement and denial of a woman’s right to have her own feelings and desires, and become a smokescreen for emotional abuse. When everything in a relationship is framed in terms of how much he deserves and how little you do, or how wise and good he is and how broken you are… here be dragons.

A good partner respects your autonomy. A good partner is not invested in working on what’s wrong with you: they recognize that as your responsibility and your right, and only help out when invited. A good partner — or potential partner — lets you want what you want and doesn’t seek to rank or categorize or judge your wants. A good partner isn’t using you for wish fulfillment. A good partner recognizes that your love is a gift, freely given, not something that they earn by getting a certain number of merit points. A good partner wants you to realize your desires, even if those desires take you in a different direction.

As Red says, nice is different than good.

Types of Character Traits

This blog was inspired by two things. First is Ginny’s concept of flashy vs finish-line characters (flashy meaning characters you like because they are fun to watch, finish meaning characters you like because you want them to succeed). Second is this podcast by Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson explains his three “sliders” for characterization; sympathy, proactivity and competence. I was listening to the podcast while thinking about Ginny’s system, and realized that if I split sympathy into two new traits, niceness and relatability, I ended up with four categories that explained why a particular character might have more flash, or more finish-line quality, than another.

First, there’s niceness. Characters who are nice do the things that we think people should do. They make the moral choices we all like to think we would make. It tends to make a character more of a finish-line character, because when people do the right thing, we want to see that rewarded. Nice characters are admirable. Unfortunately, because what we should do is also often what we are expected to do, niceness can come at the expense of flash. Nice characters are less likely to surprise us.

Second, there’s relatability. Relatable characters do the sorts of things we can see ourselves do. They feel quintessentially human, the embodiment of traits that live in all of us. It too is very finish-line friendly, because when we see ourselves in a character, we automatically want them to win, because we are now living through them vicariously. However, like niceness, relatability can make a character too predictable to be flashy. They also have a tendency to be very average, to avoid alienating any one demographic. This can make them feel bland.

Third, there’s Competence. These are the characters who are able to keep things happening, to defeat their enemies and achieve their goals. These characters are often highly flashy, because the way they solve problems is interesting and unusual. However, if their skill level is too high, relative to their obstacles, they can actually make it hard for readers to care about them. If there’s no tension, no fear of failure, there’s no point in worrying, from the reader’s perspective. Furthermore, their skill level can take their actions too far outside the realm of normal experience. These characters run the risk of being low finish-line characters.

Fourth, there’s Proactivity. These characters have a lot of determination and motivation, as well as a clear goal and task. This tends to enhance flash because they create a fast pace of action. They are always doing something that the viewers want to see. However, if they end up doing something most people would be reluctant to do, for ethical reasons or simply because the costs are too high, they can lose reader sympathy. They aren’t always characters you want to succeed.

There are two pairs that go easily together; niceness and relatability, which enhance finish, and competence and proactivity, which enhance flash. There is absolutely no reason to think a nice person couldn’t also be relatable, or that a competent character couldn’t also be proactive. Furthermore, the two strengthen and add depth to each other. A character who is relatable but not nice might actually turn people off, because without niceness odds are they only remind us of the worst parts of ourselves. Niceness without relatability usually produces a Purity Sue; someone so saccharinely perfect they are actually really hard to like. Competent characters who are not proactive aren’t going to get as many chances to show off their skill. Proactive characters who are not competent are likely to frustrate readers with the obvious futility of their efforts.

So it’s very possible to create a character who is very much a finish-line character, but not very flashy, or vice-versa, but when you’re trying to give a character elements of both, you run into problems. First of all, there are two pairs that are somewhat diametrically opposed. Niceness and proactivity don’t go easily together. They might in everyday life, but the dramatic, story-rich moments tend to present moral conflicts. A story where all a nice person only has to fulfill their basic social obligations to get what they want is a boring story. The same goes for competence and relatability. It takes a lot of work to be skilled, and most people don’t have the means or the will to develop more than one really good skill, or a handful of decently average skills. So if you make a character highly competent in a number of abilities, it becomes harder to make them relatable.

Of the remaining two relationships, niceness with competence and relatability with proactivity, these can go together a little more successfully, but remember the difficulties inherent in a character who is nice but not relatable, or proactive but not competent. So you can’t get out of the tangle above by, say, writing a character who is nice, but not proactive, and competent, but not relatable. You’ll end up with someone who is perfect and shiny, but who never feels like a person or does anything, and they will probably be much more hated than a character who is just nice and relatable but not flashy, or just competent and proactive but also an antihero who you don’t really want to succeed in the end.

This is why it’s difficult to create characters who are both flashy and finishy. It’s why heroes are often boring and villains are often interesting. And it’s not always a bad thing. Frodo is high finish, low flash, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t suffer from that, because we don’t need Frodo to be exciting to get engrossed in the story. We already have a beautiful setting and an abundance of flashy side characters with their own complex interwoven plots and subplots. Frodo just needs to be nice and relatable enough that we are very invested in his surviving his quest to destroy the One Ring. In fact, his lack of flash enhances the story; because this quest is in the hands of someone so ordinary and vulnerable, the tension is incredibly high, much higher than in many Tolkien ripoff series where the protagonist has some magical talent or fighting prowess.

Luckily for writers, characters are people, and people aren’t mathematically tidy. They can have one side of their nature that is nice, and another that is proactive, one that is competent, and one that is relatable. These sides can come out in different ways at different points in the story. One of my favorite examples of this is Leslie Knope, from Parks and Recreation. Her two most obvious traits are that she is proactive, and she is nice. She is a frenetic multitasker, with a peculiarly sugary assertiveness and a determination to get her way at all times. She’s also a deeply entrenched idealist whose main goal seems to be to make everyone around her as happy as possible. In her everyday life, she can combine the two traits easily, because she works in the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN. It’s her job to make places where people go to be happy.

Of course, since the writers on Parks and Rec know their stuff, they don’t let her keep this happy balance for long. They constantly throw her into situations where she has to make a choice she’s not comfortable making. She can’t play by the rules and get what she wants. She can’t make everyone happy. People in her world fail to live up to her standards and that makes her mad. This already makes her a little more relatable, because nobody gets what they want all the time. Then the writers start playing with competence and relatability. First she comes up with a clever plan, but then something goes wrong, so she tries something else that’s clever, but she overlooks something, until finally she runs out of clever plans, panics, and does something amazingly stupid. One minutes she’s a manic genius, but the next she’s in over her head and clueless, and we are all nodding our heads and saying “yeah, been there.” Sometimes she doesn’t succeed at all. Sometimes she really can’t do it all, and she needs her friends to rescue her, or just to cheer her up. Other times, she comes up with a last minute plan that saves everything, and we are incredibly satisfied, because we wanted to see her win and had fun watching her try.

There is a fifth element that is the most important and the hardest of all to pull off; verisimilitude. Whatever traits you pour into a character, they can’t feel like you did a mathematical equation to create the most perfectly balanced character. They have to feel like all these traits belong in the same human being, like they interrelate. Everything Leslie does feels like something Leslie would do, not something Ron Swanson would do, or Frodo, or Snow White, or Scarlett O’Hara. As you write your characters, at a certain point you will start feeling them come alive in your head, like instead of telling them what they do at this point in the story, you are asking them what they would do and they are telling you. When that happens, don’t break it. Don’t say, “well, I hear your answer, but that’s not a very proactive thing to do and I want you to be more flashy.” Your readers, more than anything else, want to feel like they are getting to know people. If your characters rebel and take over the story, let them.

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this topic again. I have plenty of other thoughts on how these play out in ensembles, how they interact with genre, and so on. This is one of those cases where I have reached a stopping place and I have to take it, before I end up writing a whole book. Thanks for reading!

Character likeability: flash vs. finish-line

For writers, one of the most important things about a character is whether your readers like them. It is also notoriously difficult to manage. Readers will love a character that was intended to be a one-off cameo or a villain, and complain that the main character is boring or annoying. Sometimes character responses can be so different from the writer’s intentions that they change the whole course of a series: a minor character will become major, a villain will develop a redemption arc (sometimes, perversely, changing the character such that readers don’t love them as much.)
There are a lot of ways to think about character likeability, but in general I find myself using a simple two-axis system. One axis is how much you want the character to succeed, and the other is how fun they are to watch. These factors are pretty independent of each other, except at the very far extremes (more about that later).
Originally I was using acronyms for these two factors, but those are harder to remember and keep distinct, so I’m calling them Flash and Finish-line. The flash factor is how fun a character is to watch: usually some combination of being charismatic, surprising, clever, and entertaining. Examples of high-flash characters are: Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jack Sparrow, the Joker, Amelie. Audiences enjoy watching these characters go about their lives and pursue their goals, regardless of whether we support the actual goals. They are fun to watch because of their style, their unpredictability, their wit. (Attractiveness, in visual media, also tends to create an immediate boost to a character’s flash factor.)
The finish-line factor is how much we want a character to succeed. We might want them to succeed because we identify strongly with them, because their goals align with our values, or because they’ve suffered so much. Regardless of how interesting we find their journey or their approach, we want to see them reach the finish line, and there’s a satisfaction when that happens. Examples of high-finish characters are: Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Jean Valjean, Lucy Pevensie.
Many readers orient strongly toward one factor or the other. Some strongly prefer characters who are high-flash, even to the point of rooting for characters whose goals are reprehensible and whose success would leave the world worse off. Others strongly prefer characters who are high-finish, and will staunchly defend characters who strike others as boring or irritating, because they are invested in seeing them succeed.
In theory, a character could end up at any point on the flash/finish grid, but there are interactions that make certain spots more likely than others. There are some qualities that tend to increase a character’s flash appeal while decreasing their finish appeal, or vice versa: being unusually skilled, brilliant, or superpowered may make a character more fun to watch, while decreasing our investment in whether they succeed (either by making them harder to identify with, or making their success feel inevitable, or both.) The well-known problem wherein villains are often more interesting or exciting than heroes has its root in these dichotomies. (Lane will be going deeper into these in a follow-up post.)
On the other hand, a rise or fall in one factor can raise or lower the other in correspondence. For two characters whose natural finish-line qualities (relatability, morality, pathos or history of suffering) match pretty well, we’ll generally root harder for the one with a higher flash factor, just because we like that person more. And for most readers, there is a morality line past which a character stops being fun to watch no matter how brilliant and charming and entertaining they are. That line will vary from person to person, but, for example, once a character starts torturing puppies on-screen, no amount of charm will win their hearts back from most viewers.
As a writer, I think it’s useful to think not only of how much you want your characters to be liked, but in what way you want them to be liked. Plenty of writers have been perturbed by how much readers attach to a character that they never intended to be likeable, and frequently this comes down to flash appeal.
More to come on flash/finish, including a more detailed breakdown of the way they each correspond to other character factors.