When I first started writing, most of the characters in my stories ended up having too much to drink. Part of it was that I was in my early twenties and I had been told the old “write what you know,” but more to the point, it was because my characters were, like me, Midwestern, and like me, looking for ways to break out of their silence and express themselves. Want to tell someone how you feel but are too afraid? Drink five Budweisers and see what happens.
But the longer I wrote, the more I recognized this for the crutch it was. My characters didn’t want to take responsibility any more than I did. So one night when I was working on a story and got to the point where the characters were going to have to wake up and do the old song-and-dance apology, I thought, what if they weren’t drunk the night before? What if they were just assholes, or sentimental, or overly affectionate, or mean because that’s who they were? What if, rather than giving them an excuse to act a certain way, they just were a certain way? What if, rather than having them backtrack the previous scene, I used that scene to push forward to the next one, keeping that momentum going rather than deflating it?
I edited out the drinking from the scene and what remained were much more interesting characters, ones that were willing to move a story forward on their own without apology. There’s a great essay by Charles Baxter in The Art of Subtext called “Creating a Scene,” where he says, “If good manners comprise the code of behavior that renders our behavior acceptable and thus almost invisible in polite society, bad manners make us visible, for good or ill. . . . Bad manners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dramatic force. . . . We create a scene when we forcibly illustrate our need to be visible to others, often in the service of a wish or a demand that we seek to impose. Creating a scene thus is the staging of a desire.”
I had figured out I needed characters misbehaving and staging desires, but what I hadn’t figured out was that they had to take responsibility for it, to really be those good characters with bad manners that make a story move. Because as Baxter also points out, “If characters are capable of creating scenes, the narrative itself is then free to wander,” meaning, the author doesn’t have to work so hard to make things happen because the character will take care of that.
Next time you’re writing and you have a character pick up a drink, stage an intervention. Do they really need that cocktail to loosen up, or can you just let them say what they want to say, let them do what they really want to do?