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Exploding over stupid little things is good (for your characters)

August 30, 2012

Everyone knows that the right way to hang toilet paper is with the tail out. If you let the tail fall around the back of the roll, then it breaks back there, you have to go digging for the damned thing–sometimes at night when you’re relieving yourself in the dark.

Honestly, the future of humanity will be what it will be regardless of whether the tail of the toilet paper goes around the front or the back. If you list all the things that matter in life, this isn’t on the list.

So if a character blows up because everyone knows that you should put the tail in the front instead of the back, it probably doesn’t mean that he cares deeply about the proper alignment of the Charmin.

Sometimes as writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making our characters show their emotions directly. That could be a mistake.

As you probably know, I’ve been watching Mad Men lately, in part because it’s teaching me things about writing. The protagonist, Don Draper, is a dashing ad executive who’s a professional miracle worker and a pretty good guy. But he cheats on his wife Betty. During the show’s second season, Don’s trying to pitch Heineken to market to women who shop at grocery stores. He says that women will buy Heineken for dinner parties because it’s impressive.

Don invites people for a dinner party without giving any direction about what to serve. Among the things Betty gets is beer, specifically Heineken beer. When that becomes apparent, Don and the guests from work share a knowing laugh because he was right.

Betty becomes angry at being the subject of an experiment–at being at the center of an inside joke. When the party’s over, she’s furious with him. As the argument plays out, the real reason for her anger comes out. She knows Don’s cheating.

The entire scene, part of an episode called A Night to Remember–which is worthy of its own blog post about titles, plays out wonderfully, showing Betty’s response to a truth she’s ignored for a long time. But the real reaction starts over her reaction to a test. The test was manipulative, but not particularly evil. The sleeping around was.

And that’s how people really respond. It’s not the inside chuckle, or the toilet paper hanging the wrong way. Those are never the real issue.

  1. August 30, 2012 9:27 am

    Unless you have a cat—then you must do it the WRONG way or you will have TP all over the place.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      August 30, 2012 7:14 pm

      We actually kept the toilet paper on the back of the toilet for that very reason.

  2. August 30, 2012 12:45 pm

    “The protagonist, Don Draper, is … a pretty good guy.”
    No, no he’s not.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      August 30, 2012 7:15 pm

      Okay…I mean, none of those guys are people I’d choose as a role model. They’re all flawed. I think he tries to be a better man. (I have not watched season five, though.)

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    August 30, 2012 8:11 pm

    Serena, I have considered what you’ve said and it’s made me think. I have a post planned about it that’s currently scheduled to run on October 11.

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