Back in the day I did a lot of improv comedy. It was super fun. One theater I played at had a specific philosophy – relationship, reveal, reaction – that was very different from the game-based improv I learned elsewhere. The cool thing about RRR was that you didn’t have to be the cleverest one on stage to be entertaining. Your honesty and the grounded scenework usually led to something funny. Build a relationship with the other players, someone drops a bomb, everyone works through it.
Also at this theater, they had a pet peeve when building scenes. That pet peeve was ‘slightly pissed off’, as in, you come into a scene and you play slightly pissed off at the other person or in general. “Oh, you’re doing that again?” It’s not a very strong choice and if you watch enough ‘prov, you can usually spot the less experienced player by how bland and slightly pissed off their choices are. It’s a safe choice.
Flash forward to this afternoon, as I sip coffee and mull over worldbuilding ideas for a story I am gestating. I kept thinking about ways of introducing a character or some details about this planet they are on, but it felt super contrived. I kept thinking about the character going through a routine, full of details that are strange to us but mundane to them, and no matter how I pictured the scene I was left with an icky bad writing feeling.
And lo, I realized, it wasn’t what the character was thinking, but rather how they were thinking it.
Yep – slightly pissed off.
It was a character dealing with some annoying part of his daily job routine, and that was the obvious choice. That boring choice that makes for lousy improv also makes for lousy reading.
And the more I think about it, the more I think that this might be the ‘dark and stormy night’ of genre fiction today. I’ve seen that tone way too much when describing whatever world the story is sitting up, and frankly, it makes me feel the same way about the world that the character does – mostly indifferent, but slightly pissed off. No amount of cyber-Manatees or TOTALLY FRESH TAKES on zombies is going to fix that.
I’m guilty of using that easy choice also, though my flawed fallback is usually ‘childish enthusiasm’. Even in a really awesome book like John Dies at the End, David Wong spends the beginning of the book walking us through his strange world…and he is slightly pissed off at John. And at things in general. Horrible monster comes at you? Slightly pissed off. “Oh, not again.”
To be fair, David Wong’s attitude towards this strange world is one of the ways the book grounds a completely insane story and brings accessibility to the reader. I’m not saying you can’t pull it off with aplomb. I’m just saying, an awful lot of characters in strange worlds sure are slightly pissed off about their strange world.
So the next time you sit down to your gDrive doc or Scrivener archive, make sure you make some strong choices about how your characters are going to behave. Why not make them throw a fit – they can barely function because they keep throwing and kicking things? Why not make them warmly genial, like a nice doctor’s bedside manner? What about so shy they mumble every word?