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Writing Workshop: make your characters disagree

The reason we love a good, old fashioned romantic comedy is because we enjoy the formula: two people who can’t stand the sight of each other, who clash and bang heads and disagree about everything from what to have for breakfast to politics, end up falling head over heels in love.

The reason character disagreement works so well in fiction is because disagreement equals passion and passion equals drama.

And if there’s one thing we know it’s that if you want to create a story which engages your readers, there needs to be friction and tension.

Disagreements don’t only work on a plot level, they deepen character too.

When we argue, we expose our hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities. Disagreements get to the core of who we are and our place in the world.

What’s more, when disagreement is followed by friendship or falling in love, there has to be a significant internal journey, one which involves a good dose of humility.

And humility –  the fall following the pride – is a deeply a satisfying trajectory to watch.

This trajectory will involve a number of internal and external obstacles for your character to overcome and as we watch them on that journey, we’ll grow to love them and feel for them.

So, it’s a good idea to have your characters disagree, even characters who love each other deeply – perhaps especially those who love each other deeply: friends and lovers and sisters and brothers and mothers and daughters.

At the beginning of the summer I read the wonderful Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, the novelist and equal rights activist. Talley grew up in Virginia, riding a desegregation bus to school, so she witnessed the power of disagreement – and love within disagreement – at close quarters. In her story she writes about Sarah, a black girl who begins her first day in an all-white high school, and the relationship she forms with the Linda, the privileged, white girl, whose parents are fighting the school authorities for deciding to allow integration.

The passage I use for the writing exercise below reflects how differently Sarah and Linda see the world.

Writing exercise:

  1. Read the passage from Lies We Tell Ourselves and reflect on how Linda sees her views in contrast to Sarah’s. Note that this is from Linda’s perspective, that it’s part of her interior monologue, so a degree of subjectivity and bias will be involved. This makes for good fiction, as we ask ourselves how Sarah would respond to having her views represented so bluntly.
  2. Either choose two characters you are working on already or start from scratch and think of a scenario in which two people might meet and clash: this might be the meeting of two strangers who happen to sit next to each other on the train or best friends or lovers who are flung into a situation which makes them take up opposing views.
  3. Now choose one of your characters and write a few paragraphs of internal monologue, like Linda’s, as you reflect on how different your views are. You may want to follow it, as in the passage below, with your character’s response to this disagreement.
  4. Now write!

Extension:

  1. Re-write the passage from the point of view of the other character involved in the disagreement: try to get into his or her head and see how different things look.
  2. Let your characters have it out in a live argument, through dialogue, using their different views: think about how this might be different from representing the disagreement in your character’s head.
  3. Use this as an exercise to get to know your characters: even if you don’t end up using the piece of writing in your actual story, it’s good background research. Practise getting into your characters’ heads and thinking about how at odds they feel with those around them.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, pp.137-138

For weeks now I’ve been trying to make Sarah understand how things are, but for everything I say, she has an answer ready.

I’ll say segregation is law, and always has been. She’ll say laws get changed when they’re wrong, and always have.

I’l say God put the races on different continents so we’d each stay with our own. She’ll say my people messed that up, then, when we brought her people over here as slaves, and when we came to America even though the Indians were already here.

I’ll say she’s an agitator, and an infuriating one at that. And she won’t even answer. She’ll just cock her head and smile. Like I’m one of those monkeys with the windup boxes and I’ve just done a silly dance for her.

And the day after we’ve argued, I’ll see her in school, looking docilely up at the teachers as though she’s never said an unkind word to anyone.

No. The real Sarah Dunbar is reserved for me and Judy alone.

Just for me, really. When she’s talking to Judy, Sarah’s perfectly nice and polite, but when I try to tell her something, her eyes narrow and her arguments fly.

Worst of all, she seems to enjoy it. Whenever I make a point, something lights up in her eyes, and I can tell she’s already planning what she’s going to say back. She talks so fast it’s difficult to keep up with her, and I have to think harder about what to say back. It takes more effort than it used to for me to think through what she’s saying and look for places to point out what she’s getting wrong, but the arguments all come rapid-fire to Sarah.

It’s as though we’re back in my tenth-grade Debate class. Except in class, no one ever wanted to debate me because I always won.

It’s a good thing Sarah wasn’t in that class. One of us might not have made it out alive.

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