WRITING WEDNESDAY: Circus Peanuts, Character Motives, and Clown Taint
Today’s Writing Wednesday is about the candy circus peanuts. It is subtitled ‘Why I’m An Idiot’ because I just bought them. AGAIN.
There is a point to all this. Wait for it.
Every few years (once the shock from the last time has worn off) I purchase a pack of circus peanuts. You’d think I would’ve learned from last time, but no. I make excuses for it, such as: ‘the last batch was probably just stale’. Or: ‘well, I’d been drinking last time. Beer goggles, and whatnot.’ Or, most convincingly: ‘maybe I just shouldn’t have bought that brand.’
I do this because they’re just so damn adorable. And I am, if nothing else, a sucker for adorable things. I see them in a checkout line somewhere and I say: “aww, but look at ’em! They’re all orange. And marshmallowy. And they’re shaped like peanuts. Orange+marshmallows+peanuts = awesome, right? Right? Because how bad can a candy be? I mean, it’s candy.”
So I buy a pack, nestle them inside my black hole of a purse for later consumption. I go home: Definitely Not Dave isn’t back from work yet, so I stretch out. I read a book, write a bit, get some dinner started. And as the hours tick by, I realize: I’m pretty hungry. Out come the circus peanuts.
And here the farce begins.
The fact of the matter is, my dears, that circus peanuts taste like petrified clown taint.
I think they’re supposed to taste like bananas. This is, at least, what extensive Googling tells me. But if they do, it is a fake banana flavoring so strong, so offensive, that Miley Cyrus wouldn’t twerk it with a ten foot pole. It’s a fake banana flavoring that deserves to be taken in for questioning. And then, when it refuses to do anything but smell like fake bananas, it needs to have the shit waterboarded out of it.
(And this is without mentioning the texture on said circus peanuts. The lying sonofabitch box says ‘marshmallow’. What it means, I think, is ‘corpsefied marshmallow in the first stages of rigor mortis, dusted with a thin coating of floor wax.’ Biting into one of these is, I imagine, the same experience a vampire has when he’s aiming for the sleeping nubile young countess and accidentally sinks his fangs into her flo-foam mattress topper. And it’s just as disappointing.)
Obviously, I am displeased with my purchase. But why do I feel shame, and not anger? Why do I think, once DND gets home, I’ll totally lie and tell him I ate them, and pray he doesn’t check the garbage can in the kitchen?
You might’ve picked up on this earlier, but I buy them once every couple of years. Like an idiot child. I also keep buying colored pencils that aren’t Prismacolor (‘but they’re so damn cheap!’). I keep buying e-cigarettes (which, by the way, do absolutely nothing for quitting smoking. They just mean your smoking smells like unicorn farts, and you can do it in most public places). I keep buying dollar store trashbags. None of these things work, yet I keep buying them.
The sick, sad truth of it is: deep down, deep in my crusty spiny little heart, I am an optimist.
I believe people are mostly good. I believe companies manufacture things intending for them to work. I believe doctors really want you to get better (Big Pharma not so much, but that’s neither here nor there). If you’re a salesperson, I believe you have faith in what you sell. If you’re a waiter, and I ask you what’s good on the menu, I think you’re telling me what you think is good, and not what’s most expensive/will get rid of the most waste in the kitchen.
I don’t think these are remarkable things to believe, or particularly uncommon ones. Sure, most people might not give circus peanuts a second chance after the first one or two leave you clutching your stomach and cursing the Marshmallow Gods for abandoning you. After the first bag breaks when it’s half full of feather bedding and packing peanuts, most people might abandon dollar store trash bags.
But optimism is, by and large, what keeps us waking up. It’s what keeps us going to work, leaving voicemail messages on that old friend’s phone, what keeps us dating, going out to bars, voting in the next election. When you lose hope in a thing–when you give up on it–it ceases to become a topic of conversation. It ceases, in any way, to be interesting to you.
Okay, I told you about the circus peanuts mostly for shits and giggles. But I’m going to use it to prove a point here: people have hope. They have inordinately complicated daisy-chains of hopes. Little ones–next time I buy them, circus peanuts might magically not taste like clown taint–to personal ones–if I grow a goatee, maybe the cute girl at the bank who always takes my deposit will notice me–to potentially earth changing ones–if I donate five bucks to this fundamentalist sect, maybe they’ll finally have enough AK-47s to take over this corrupt government.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles ’round the web lately citing conflict as the fundamental source of plot movement and character dynamic. I agree, in a way, but I think it goes deeper than just conflict. In order for there to be conflict, there has to be desire. And no, I don’t just mean sexy-type desire–though that can be a powerful decider. I mean motive. I mean all the little hopes and dreams that keep you from killing yourself.
Little hopes drive what you do. You take a left down 70 on your way to work in the morning because you hope there’ll be less traffic that way. You argue with your wife because you hope, deep down, that if you yell and stomp around enough she’ll see it your way (which she won’t, but, you know). You have sex later because you hope it’ll help you both get around the argument. You put off writing that quarterly report because you hope, if you sleep a little less, you can have time for sex just once, just fucking once in your adult life, on a weeknight.
Your kids stay up late, smiling, listening to the rhythmical thumping of headboard on wall, because they hope it’s the sound of your wife finally killing you. They haven’t seen you outside of a suit in five years, and they hate you for it.
The next morning your boss will possibly fire you, because he hoped that quarterly report wouldn’t be late, and you’ve disappointed that hope.
See where I’m going with this?
To be realistic, your characters have to have an interest in the outcome of events. Not just your main character–all of your characters. They have to say and do things with these hopes somewhere in their subconscious minds, at the very least. Their hopes are like icebergs–they clash, they grind, they drift down the canal without touching. But they do, my dears, interact.
You build the hopes and dreams of your characters just like you’ve built your own. If Jenny Jenowitz takes the stairs to an appointment 10 floors up, why does she choose to do that? Is she hoping it’ll help her stay in shape? Or maybe that, if her boss sees her panting on the way up, he’ll think she’s rushed to be there in time? Or maybe she’s just afraid of elevators.
If Jenny’s taking the stairs for ten fucking flights, everyone who isn’t a fellow clasutrophobe/marathon runner is going to wonder why. Or, to be more accurate–why has Jenny made this decision? It’s not an ordinary decision. If she’s doing it, there better be a reason. How does this decision fit into Jenny’s value system? What is she hoping will happen because she’s made this decision? And then–how does this hope and its outcomes fit into your story?
You can create a whole story from something like this, trust me. All you need to do is figure out what Jenny’s hoping will happen because she took the stairs and enmesh it with what a few other characters are hoping will happen that day. Here’s something you might do:
1) Jenny is a few minutes late for her quarterly evaluation, but she still chooses to wing the ten flights of fucking stairs up to it instead of taking the elevator. Why?
2) Because Jenny, who is seventy pounds overweight, is tired of the bullshit. She’s made a resolution, after her 406 lb. friend Carlos suffered heart failure at age twenty-eight in his bathtub alone, that she’s going to shed her extra pounds and make a new woman of herself. She does a pretty good job at work, knows she can afford the extra five minutes. She’s late, by the way, because she started crying in the parking lot this morning thinking about poor Carlos, and had to pause to fix her mascara. So she’s grief-stricken and determined. She is going, god dammit, to take those stairs. For Carlos. For herself.
3) Little does Jenny know that her boss, Mr. Teeter E. Tatum, is actually an alien monitor from Cygnus 38SA. The Cygnians have been observing the Sol system for roughly six thousand years, because of a very strange thing– viewed from the outside, the space containing the Sol system looks like an impenetrable black cube. Who built this cube, the Cygnians have been wondering. What purpose could they have had? Were the Earthlings actually extraordinarily clever, hiding a high level of technological sophistication in simple things like subway cars and banana flavored Twinkies? Or is the whole system some sort of preserve, kept hidden away inside the Block to escape the more prying minds of the galactic meta-civilization?
4) Mr. Tatum (whose name, in his own civilization, is Hrkwrkk Mrfzrkfldwr, hailed on all worlds as Least Pronouncable Name in the Galaxy) has been biding his time on Earth for about two thousand of those four thousand years. He thinks, due to recent evidence provided by another intergalactic monitor, he may have finally figured out what’s going on. Since his twelve o’clock appointment, Ms. Jenowitz, is running late (by the five thousand probosces of Sarl Sloth-God, he thinks, these humans are always so damn late!) he decides to activate his Krlxyx 5000 small-mass transmitter/ansible and contact his home planet to let them know what’s going on.
5) The machinery of this ansible, which, as it’s made from not so superior earth-parts, takes up a huge amount of space, is located in the building’s stairwell. Because nobody, nobody, ever takes the stairs. Damn. I mean, why would you want to get your work clothes all funky when there are like fifty elevators that work just fine? And the machinery has this truly unfortunate tendency to malfunction. Small mass transmitter, you see–small masses, in this case, being up to 200 lbs.
6) Jenny, who funnily enough hasn’t been eating that much since Carlos died, is down to 198.
You can take it from there. But you can see how these two characters–Jenny, by the way, would have to at some point introduce herself to an alien diplomat as ‘Jenny from the Block’–have made perfectly rational decisions, based on their own value systems and hopes, to make a perfectly unlikely thing happen. Mr. Tatum is a galactic monitor more than he is a VP of Unnecessary Marketing, so his main desire is to tell Cygnian society what’s up. Jenny just had an overweight friend die very young, so she takes the stairs. And from there, you can add more to the hopes n’ dreams daisy chain to make a whole fucking plot. Add some friction–maybe Mr. Tatum’s gone a little native, and he realizes the eventual Cygnian plan to destroy all humans doesn’t tie in very well with making projected sales on Dowdy Dude Deodorant in the fourth quarter. Or maybe poor Carlos, Jenny’s friend, actually was the other alien monitor. Maybe 406 lbs. is actually starvation weight for his species–finding that out would certainly fuck with Jenny.
Maybe Carlos died because he was attempting to assassinate Mr. Tatum, who Jenny now likes (maybe they’re dating as they try to save Sol system). What would Jenny do about that?
Does Jenny lose those 70 pounds? Or does she discover, along the way to Cygnus, that some things are more important? Maybe Mr. Tatum thinks she’s just the perfect weight. Maybe his culture considers the 5’6-5’7 ish, 200 lbs ish, human female demographic startlingly beautiful. Maybe there’s a niche market for human female porn stars of this demographic around Cygnus. Maybe Mr. Tatum, the dirty bastard, has been making some videos.
Long story short: people, even Cygnian galactic monitors, have motives. And these motives, these hopes, guide your plot. Because when someone is doing something strange, they’re hoping to get something out of it. And you can bet that whatever it is they get, well. It’s not going to be exactly what they hoped for.
That’s where optimism becomes plotsimism. Oh, God. Yes, I just said that. Kill me now.