Friday, May 25, 2007

Complex characters

So I'm down at the beach, it's low tide, and I'm searching through the rubble of shells and rocks and sand for seaglass when this man, late 60s, yellow teeth, with a little white dog, and rich (I think this because I saw him leave one of the multimillion dollars up on the hill as I descended the path; he didn't look like the help), and asks me what I'm doing.

It's illegal to pick up shells or sea life at this beach and I figure that's what he's going to ask me about, but he's aggressive and wears a scowl (and as I said, his teeth are yellow) and so I say, "Why?"

"Because it's illegal to take shells from this beach!" he says.

"I live here; I know," I say, "I'm picking up glass--"

"--I live here, too," he bellows.

I tell him I'm offended and he says, "You're offended because I asked you that? You're offended? Well, that's too damn bad!"

Which is when I say, "I think you had better get out of my face," and he backs off, huffing and puffing. He goes away, joins a woman wearing a visor, and I continue to pick up glass (which is what you see here, my find for the day), and all the while I'm thinking, If only he'd had a better tone. If only he'd been nicer, we could have had a conversation about how horrible it is that people come down to the beach and steal sea life and are wrecking the tide pools. I find myself feeling sorry for the woman, and the little dog, thinking: If this is how he treats strangers, how must he treat those close to him?

And I also begin thinking about tone in general, how so much is in the tone of how you say something.

E-mail can be a problem because the tone just does not come across. You think you're being funny and someone takes offense.

And in fiction, tone is vital. Without scene setting, gestures, the facial expressions of our characters, the tone can be a problem.

The man wore a permanent scowl. Had probably been a bigwig at a corporation, used to ordering people around, used to being a pain in a butt. And so now he felt he needed to rule his beach because he no longer had a company.

But he was also picking up trash, not just being a jerk, and so there you have a complex character....a nasty person who cares about the environment. Which is also what we need to do in our fiction: create complex bad guys that are difficult to hate.


FemGurl said...

Oh! Oh! That is so freaky. I took my daughter to Crystal Cove on Friday and we encountered a similar person. There was a very large group of school children who had neatly assembled a collage of amazing shells and surrounded it by seaweed--they were not taking them, they were just laid out for all of us to see and he went up and chewed out one of the parents and asked who had done such a thing. I swear I want to take a picture of that sign that says you can't even turn over a rock, $1,000 minimum fine and post it. I think the people in the midwest think I'm nuts when I tell them you can't collect sea shells or so much as turn over a rock!

Anonymous said...

That is freaky. Maybe it was the same guy!

Deborah said...

complicated in california, just plain neurotic in new york...

sweetness said...

What the heck is sea glass?

Anonymous said...

Really? Jordie, somehow I'm getting used to you as Sweetness.

Anonymous said...

Sea glass is glass from the sea, from a pirate ship or a party boat, that washes up on shore and is burnished nicely from all the ocean agitation.