How NOT to get the reader empathizing with frustrated characters

Don’t make this big mistake when you’re writing about a character in a dull or frustrating job

I was looking at a thriller script. It featured police officers protecting witnesses. There’s a scene where one of the MCs is sitting in the car reading Marvel comics instead of watching the house they’re in. One of the other officers says to him ‘can’t you act professionally?’. The comic-reading MC says ‘when I’m put in the front car I’ll act like a pro’. The screenplay is full of bickering like this.

Can we really believe that anyone who has a job would behave this way? Much less someone who has had to go through police selection and training. The writer wanted him to be a likable maverick, frustrated that he’s getting nowhere. But instead of empathizing with him, we think he’s an unbelievable jerk.

This is a problem I see quite often – in novels as well as screenplays. The character is frustrated with a ‘normal’ life. Usually that’s a rich seam to mine because readers find plenty of frustrations in their own lives and will understand them. But the writer shows them bickering, sniping, slacking off and being superior. They toss aside the dull report they’re supposed to be writing and they read scriptwriting manuals instead. They tell their colleagues how boring the company is. They act like they’re trying to get sacked because they really want to join a rock band.

 This is not how people in frustrating jobs really behave. Even when they are dreaming of something better.

 Ricky Gervais got it right in The Office. And Richard Yates has frustrating office life down to a T in Revolutionary Road.

Most of these characters hate their jobs. But they find ways to put up with it. They genuinely try to hide their frustrations and resentments, except with a few trusted people. Perhaps a collusive comment to an equally frazzled colleague at the water cooler; or letting off steam in the pub. Even then they may not dare expose their discontent fully – to other people or even to themselves.

Most people in frustrating jobs don’t bicker with their colleagues. They muddle along with them. They might even jolly each other through so it’s not so bad.

This is the key. Because these characters care about keeping the job. And that’s what makes their lives so frustrating. It’s why they don’t swagger around with an attitude that says ‘I’m a maverick and the rest of you are fools’. That version is the fantasy of a writer who’s been working on their own in Writerland for years and mixing only with other writers with the same lifestyle. (It’s possibly also why it has taken many writers so long to feature things that the rest of the world have had for years – like mobile phones.)

A frustrating life is an emotional state – usually a complex trap that the character is colluding with and has tangled feelings about. If it is being used to engage the reader’s sympathies, it needs to be presented with understanding, not superiority.

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  1. #1 by Laura Pauling on June 28, 2010 - 11:44 am

    No, I agree. Unless the bickering moves the story forward, I skip dialogue like that.

    • #2 by Roz Morris on June 28, 2010 - 1:23 pm

      @Laura – you’re right, sometimes seemingly pointless dialogue can be useful… because it’s not actually pointless.

  2. #3 by dazydaywriter on June 28, 2010 - 1:46 pm

    Good distinctions, Roz. I’m not a novelist but this all makes sense to me. I have written a few short stories and know how difficult it is to get the characters “right.” And when they’re not, somehow readers just know it. They have to be believable, right? Hope you have a great week. –Daisy

  3. #4 by Cat Woods on June 28, 2010 - 3:08 pm

    Roz, this post is a great reminder for writers to keep focused on why they are writing.

    Once upon a time, I went through a particularly bad time with an unnamed person in my life. I killed said person off in a short story. Not once, but three times. In three separate stories. Not one of those would be fit for public consumption and I would never try to pub them. What it did was free up some of my emotions and allow me to move on.

    Sometimes we write with an agenda in mind–one often fueled by our own frustrations. Those stories almost never work.

    Thanks for keeping us focused.

    • #5 by Roz Morris on June 28, 2010 - 10:31 pm

      @Daisy – Thanks! It’s often tricky to know what’s a bit off in your story – you just know it’s not quite right. Part of getting experience as a writer is learning what to do about these inklings. Have a good, creative week!
      @Cat – ooh, you vengeful vixen! Yes, I’ve done that… Thanks for sharing such a personal episode!
      @Bonnie – I always find dislike is far more fun to write about, but maybe I’m twisted. If I was an actor I’d be the type who always wanted to play villains.
      @Jason – thank you for contributing part 2 of this post! You’re spot-on that the writer who does this has got hold of the underlying problem, but has presented it too baldly. This could also work for so many other character emotions – love and dislike being just two.
      As for whether it’s a ‘show not tell’ violation… I actually think it’s more a failure to notice how people really behave, but a desire to communicate the underlying cause rather than the presenting symptoms. Your first point tackled this extremely well. And I’m totally in agreement that writers who want to explore these strong emotions are stepping in the right direction, in that they are trying to involve the reader in the character’s world – they just need a nudge about reality.

  4. #6 by Bonnie Doran on June 28, 2010 - 3:10 pm

    Great insight, Roz. So far my characters really like their jobs, but writing one who hates it would be fun with these guidelines.

  5. #7 by Jason Black on June 28, 2010 - 9:57 pm

    Great observation. I’m dithering over whether to characterize it as a violation of “Show, don’t tell” where the telling is being done through the character’s voice rather than through narrative, or merely as a poor _application_ of “Show, don’t tell.”

    Either way, I’m with you 100% that this is not the most effective way to convey the frustration. Gotta do it through exposing the tension between what the character feels–frustrated/confined/trapped/stifled–and how the character acts.

    What you’re citing here is a problem of writers surfacing these feelings too directly through actions, rather than finding a way to convey the feelings to the reader while showing a different set of surface-level actions. Making clear the contrast between feelings and actions–that is, showing the reader that the character is specifically NOT indulging all of his/her frustration-based impulses–will get the whole picture across to the reader much clearer.

    Hm. As I think about it, I’m convincing myself that it’s not a violation of “Show, don’t tell” but only poor use of that golden rule.

    While you see this problem often in novels and screenplays (I do, too in my clients’ work), I think we both should not be shy about encouraging these writers for their efforts. They may not have figured out exactly what they should be showing yet, but at least they’re SHOWING rather than telling. I, too often, see manuscripts that exhibit a complete unawareness of the whole concept of “Show, don’t tell.” (And I’ll bet you do, too.) At least the writers who are showing badly are further along in their craft than the ones who don’t even understand that there’s a difference between showing and telling.

  6. #8 by Verdonk on June 28, 2010 - 10:23 pm

    I think it’s a violation of a bigger rule than “Show, don’t tell” – namely, “Tell the truth”. There’s no truth in characters in a boring job acting like hip rebels. Unless we happen to be joining them on the day that it all gets too much, we realize that such a person wouldn’t still be in that job. The problem for the writer is that quiet desperation, though far more interesting and truthful, is harder to show. But if it was easy then everyone would be writing bestsellers🙂

  7. #9 by Dave Morris on June 30, 2010 - 8:56 am

    As I see it, you are saying that frustration more often results in a slow simmer, often with mixed feelings about the source of the frustration. The job we think is pointless and managed by stupid bosses is the same job that pays for our nice house, kids’ schooling and vacations. That kind of tense love-hate, where a character simultaneously wants to throw his computer monitor out of the window *and* be a good company man so he gets the promotion – that’s something prose is good at. I mean, it’s the perfect medium in which to express that. But too many novelists take their cue from the bullet-point storytelling of movies, where all that complex emotion has to be reduced to a single scene with the hero pouring boiling coffee over the office rubber plant.

  8. #10 by Jonathan Moore on June 30, 2010 - 4:28 pm

    I have a similar problem with my WIP at the moment. My MC’s motivation is that he wants his parents to forgive him and show him some affection again. He would never say this to anyone – them, friends, not even himself, but that is what he needs. I can’t show it by him trying to appease them, because until they forgive him he wants to stay out of their way. Unless it is clear it may easily seem to the reader that he is acting out of more noble motives.
    Any advice? Specific or generic….

  9. #11 by Roz Morris on June 30, 2010 - 8:58 pm

    @Dave – slow simmer.. that’s it in a nutshell, or should I say a pressure cooker.
    @Jonathan – hmm, interesting situation. I think what I’d do is have him avoid them as much as possible and seek out others he can be good and generous towards in the way that he wishes he’d behaved towards them. Righting the wrong and so forth. Can’t think of the word for it at the moment (it might be transferance?) but if Jason Black is reading these comments he will probably hop in and rescue me! Sounds full of potential!

  10. #12 by Dave Morris on July 5, 2010 - 10:20 am

    “Show don’t tell” is a rock on which many writers founder. It does *not* mean that you have to turn everything into a scene. It does mean that you mustn’t just hand out blank cards: “He was more frightened than he had ever been,” “She wondered what it meant” etc. You must make us empathize. How does that character’s anger or puzzlement feel?

    Misinterpreting the rule, many writers avoid tackling inner life (such as frustration at a boring job) because inner life may not have obvious outer effects. Rockets and billiard balls respond obviously to impetus, but people indulge in displacement activities and sublimation. Read some Henry James or E M Forster – the ways that inner life can be elaborated in good prose make this storytelling medium stronger than any other.

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