Stating the Obvious: Your Characters Need to Interact

An important part of Adventures in Storytelling is being vulnerable, right? Sharing the rough, incomplete, slightly embarrassing first drafts… Well then, I’m not going to be afraid to be embarrassed by what I learn as we progress through this experiment. Which is why I’m about to share something so profound—yet so blatantly obvious—that I am utterly, fantastically embarrassed it took me this long to realize. A key technique used to making a story interesting.

Okay, stick with me for a minute—this is not going to be good. But it’s necessary to illustrate my point. I present to you… A Piece of Bad Writing:

Marie walked through the door, interrupting meals all around the restaurant, and saw her adversary across the room. A table, complete with full dining set and patrons eating, sat between them. Marie navigated past the table and people, to their annoyance, and stepped up to her nemesis.

She took back her lucky pen, making sure he knew why she was so pissed.

Marie turned on the spot and walked back out.

While reading that passage, what did you feel? Bored, perhaps? (It’s okay, you won’t hurt my feelings.) But do you know why it’s boring? Take a guess—It’s boring because the characters and objects do not interact.

This was the exact problem I orchestrated in my first attempt at a draft of “Charlotte Leaves A Party”. It read very much like this piece of bad writing about Marie.

“Charlotte Leaves A Party” is a fairly important scene (but then, which ones aren’t?) as it elaborates on the relationship between Charlotte and Raul. We’ve already seen the two together, establishing the antagonistic feels between them, but now we get to follow Charlotte as she lives that experience; a chance to really explore it. Raul is annoying, full of himself, and getting all up in Charlotte’s jam; he won’t take a hint and just leave her alone. What’s Charlotte going to do?

The plan was for her to respond in a series of escalating moves to ditch Raul—starting with politely excusing herself and ending with a frustrated, verbal explosion (teetering on the edge of a spear point)—that displays her character as well as Raul’s; and we (writer and audience) have a lot of fun along the way. What ended up happening was this…

I know, right? I couldn’t even get all the way through the outline—something wasn’t working; I had to stop. As I sat there wallowing in what was obviously the most pure representation of my failure as a writer and the reason I should give up, I started thinking about why it wasn’t working. And as I slowly came back to myself I thought about conflict, the essence of good storytelling, and realized Charlotte was, in fact, avoiding conflict by avoiding Raul. She was hiding, running—failing to interact. Which led me to finally internalize an important element of writing:

Your characters need to interact with one another.

Look at my pre-writing draft for this scene again. Do you notice how every time Raul approaches Charlotte she fades away? Instead of actually engaging with Raul and allowing banter and the back and forth—thus creating excitement, laughter, or even empathetic annoyance in my audience—she disappears. Runs away. (And the few brief times she does is clearly more enjoyable than the rest!) She hides behind the giant delegate (without really interacting with him, either). She’s bouncing along the surface of the scene just dipping her toes in when she should dive in head first and allow the scene to swallow her whole. I should be making her—she’s my dang protagonist, after all!

Every time Charlotte and Raul were about to interact, I put something in the way that kept them apart—something Charlotte equally failed to interact with—and that’s why the draft wasn’t working. She wasn’t interacting with him. She wasn’t interacting with the world. James and I have put so much time and thought into creating two interesting characters and there I was, keeping them apart!

(Candice made this stunning observation after reading an early draft of this article: “This is not only about the importance of characters interacting, but of conflict. What do you think the connection is between you and Charlotte? You personally do not run head-first into conflict (you tend to avoid it); could that be why you are hesitant, in a pre-writing mind-frame, to have Charlotte engage head-on?”)

Interaction. Obvious, right? Perhaps it was so obvious I didn’t think it needed saying aloud? I may have believed the concept of interaction was so fundamental that it was impossible to not have it. By the very act of putting two characters in a place, interaction was a guaranteed outcome. But it’s not. There’s nothing compelling without interaction.

As mentioned, “interaction” is really just a subset of “conflict”—the real driving force of every story. A conflict is necessary to give reason to a plot; there must be something to attain, something to overcome. The entire story is about building to the climactic moment when the conflict is faced head on and defeated or not, leaving the characters involved different on the other side. Interaction is the on-going representation of that conflict on the micro-level, moment to moment.

It’s not just for characters, either. Think about Cast Away. For most of the movie, Tom Hanks is alone on an island without anyone with which to interact. We watch to the end because he’s challenged against his environment; finding food, making shelter. How excited were you as he screamed in delight, “I have made fire!” Interaction isn’t just for your characters, Prota and Anta Gonist, but the world itself. Literally every noun in your story should interact with something else, or why is it there? Take Cast Away’s best supporting character, Wilson: stranded, forgotten, alone, Mr Hanks personifies a ball with which to interact because interaction is a fundamental part of his humanity. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a ball—and it works.

Your characters need to interact with one another, objects, and their world.

So, interaction—it’s super important as micro-level conflict and makes a scene interesting, but is not inherent in a piece of writing. You must look at your characters, watch what they do, and ensure they reach out and touch their world. Make them move cutlery around (perhaps pricking a finger). When Prota meets Anta for the first time, make ‘em roll up their sleeves and poke fun of each other’s shirts!

Okay, let’s see what we can do to help Marie have a more interesting existence:

Marie kicked open the restaurant door (Marie interacts with the door), the soft coloured glass cracking in a spiderweb pattern as it collided with the wall (the glass interacting with the wall). Growling softly she let her eyes cast about the room, locking a glare with dinner-guests that dared to look her way (Marie interacting with other guests), confused to the strange, violent interruption to their dinner. She sneered at each in turn, daring them to complain aloud (Marie not only interacting, but provoking guests—an element of conflict!).

Suddenly, across the room, she spotted her adversary. A long table full of people, dainty bits of too-expensive fish hovering on forks inches from their mouths (guests interacting with their dinner), stood between her and vengeance.

Without another thought she strode across the room and up and over the table, kicking plates and glasses out of her way (Marie interacting with the environment). All around her patrons jumped up, flying food landing on fancy ties and sequined dresses (Marie/guest interaction). Gasps and angry muttering followed her down the far side of the table, one man even trying to push her back as she stepped onto the bench (man actively interacting with Marie), as if he wanted her to remain standing on the table like a guilty child caught traipsing mud into the house. She knocked his hand aside and scowled at him, letting a wet hiss escape through her teeth (conflict! interaction!). The man harrumphed, but backed off.

Marie stepped up to her adversary, his silk jacket slick with polish under the mood lighting (jacket and light interacting). He opened his mouth and said, “What the blasted hell are you doing to my restaurant?” (Marie and adversary interacting.)

Staring him down, Marie’s left hand shot to his breast pocket and grabbed her pen while her right grabbed his face, making it pucker like a flower. (Mary and adversary interacting: hand-to-face, hand-to-pen.) She held the pen up to his eye between their faces, scant centimetres apart.

“When someone lets you borrow a pen but says, ‘Careful with it, that’s my lucky charm,’—don’t you damn well walk away with it.” (Marie and adversary interacting.)

Holding the moment for three long beats, Marie let go of his face, turned on her heel—leaving a scuff of dirt on the pristine marble floor (Marie interacting with environment and leaving a piece of herself behind)—and walked out the same way she came in.

After offering suggestions on my first draft, Candice was reminded of a theory she used in her MA paper—“Actor-Network-Theory”. Mostly from sociology, it’s a theoretical approach that talks about connections and interactions between actors (people, networks, things). So stayed tuned, faithful reader! I shall get some assigned readings and be back with further exploration of “interaction”.