Sunday, March 13, 2011

Too Strange for Fiction

Writers are always looking for new material.

Especially weekly bloggers who live very dull lives.

We study passersby on the street to develop characters, plumb our friends’ tragedies for juicy plot devices, and shamelessly eavesdrop on buses and in restaurants. There’s a wealth of material out there for the observant writer. Unfortunately, much of it is useless because fictional characters operate in a logical universe, which doesn’t exist.

Damn those physicists! We were doing just fine until Einstein said everything is relative to the observer and Schrödinger started not-not-killing hypothetical cats and now it’s just a mess.
Real people must interact through the comprehension barrier, which sieves raw input through our mental filters. Here are two formulae to illustrate the difference between fictional characters and real people from a writer’s perspective:

Fictional characters
     (Personality + Motivation) *(Objective / Obstacles)  = Plot

Real people
     (My shit  + Your Shit) / Comprehension Barrier  = WTF

For those of you with no knack for interpreting equations, here’s a real life example:

The other day, Wen and I were about halfway through our bacon-and-eggs-over-easy  at the Aviemore restaurant, where we go every Friday morning before bell practice because they have a great kid’s menu.

Illogically, while the rest of me gets fatter, my stomach shrinks. I figure if I last till ninety, I’ll weigh five-hundred pounds and be living on one peanut a day.  

A man sat down at the table next to ours. He was about our age, still handsome in a ruddy-cheeked, well-barbered way, with a large black spot on the middle fingertip of his right hand. After ordering scrambled-and-ham, he leaned toward us and initiated a conversation using the weather opening, a Canadian favorite because we have so much of it. Due to a recent decrease in short term memory, I’m going to have to paraphrase, but here’s the gist:

What’s that on his finger? Is that dirt?

Man: Great to see the weather’s finally improving.

What’s he talking about?  It’s practically a blizzard out there.

Wen: Yep. Spring is coming.

Are they both on drugs? Wait, maybe they’re talking about the temperature. It is warmer today.

Man: My cows will be happy to get out of the barn.

Oh my god! Is that cow dung?

Wen: What kind of cows do you have?

Man: Charolais. They’re just a hobby. I got six of them after I retired. Keep myself busy.

How can he not notice a lump of shit that size? Can’t he smell it?

Me: (sniff, sniff)

Wen: They’re nice animals. When we lived in the country, there was a Charolais bull in the field beside our house. My kids named him Wellington. As in Beef Wellington.

Can’t smell anything.

Man: I make furniture out of wood. I made a dining hutch with a mirror … (some stuff I missed)

I thought we were talking about  cows. How did we get to furni… Oh! It’s a blood blister!

Me: Well that explains the blood blister.

Wen: We play hand bells. We’re on our way to practice after breakfast.

How did we get to bells? What did I miss?

Man: Now I’m making benches for retirement homes, for old people to sit on.

I think he must be having a different conversation. Maybe with the voices in his head?

Wen valiantly attempted to maintain a conversation while the man continued to pull responses from left field. I sublimated my increasing annoyance with his non-sequiturs by building a bacon and strawberry jam sandwich with the remains of my breakfast. When an attractive, middle-aged woman sat down at the table in front of his, he waved to catch her attention.

Man: How are you?

Woman: I’m fine.

Man: (gesturing to the other chair at his table) You can sit here.

Is he hitting on her?

Woman: I’m not Charlene. I’m her twin sister.

Man: Oh. Sorry.

Ah. Just a case of mistaken identity.

Woman:  It’s okay. It happens all the time. Everyone knows her because she works at Jo Ann’s.

Man: Who’s Jo Ann?

Oh Oh.

 Woman: You don’t know Charlene?

Man: No.


Me: We should go, Wen. Now.

In the car on the way to bell practice, I did some venting on the topic of people who carry on non-interactive conversations. “If he’s trying to pick up women, he really needs to work on his social skills. It’s like he was talking with himself.”

Wen laughed out loud, and not in laughing-with-you camaraderie. This was definitely laughing-at-you sarcasm.

“What? I barely said anything. There’s no point when the other guy isn’t listening.”

She responded with two words, “Blood blister,” effectively ending my diatribe on people who talk to the voices in their heads.

This is why fiction writers are necessary. Anyone can record reality. It takes an expert to interpret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment