How often have you picked up a novel to find all the male characters were as vanilla flavored as a Carnation Instant Breakfast? They have no purpose other than to be a man prop character to push the story along. You’ve read them, the boyfriend who cheated on our heroin for unknown reasons or how about the doting, layered fiancé who works all the time, leaving our leading lady alone wanting more sex. Vanilla characters have their place—getting the back story out and even as a dialogue dummy for our main character, but how do we add a little flavor to the same old boring breakfast?
As a male and writing from a male perspective in romance, I find it helpful to develop comical and quirky traits that make us laugh at these Y chromosome characters. Perhaps it’s the funny way he suddenly breaks into a sweat whenever he spots someone’s mini-wheat adorably licking an ice cream cone and fumbling it through their five year-old fingers within splattering distance of his Michael Jordon Nikes. Or the uncontrollable, yet nerdy predictable way, his head spasms to the right craning up to look at ceiling tiles, whenever a pretty Asian gal tries to start a conversation with him. These idiosyncrasies not only build an interesting male character, but the quirkiness is also relatable to the audience and memorable. Can’t you feel the anxiety of a child nearly dumping his ice cream cone on your $300 pair of shoes? What do you do when someone you find extremely hot walks up to you?
Let’s use that as an example and dig into the neuroses of a character --let’s call him Bob, the same name as the host of this blog--and discover what makes him avert his attention away from..let’s say attractive Asian ladies. Some writers might naturally toss out the cliche explanation of a childhood crush on a sexy Asian teacher… Would anyone like a little dry toast with your Instant Breakfast? Every character has the potential for a shareable moment that moves the story along and adds some flavor. One method I use is to think like the readers of grocery store tabloids, searching out the juiciest and most ridiculous of possibilities.
In my imagination, Bob’s issue would look more like this:
While Bob was a tween of fourteen, he was chasing after an errant Frisbee, overthrown and clearing the fence, landing in the petunias under the bedroom window of the grumpy next-door neighbor. As Bob rummaged around looking for the Frisbee, careful not to trod on the old Asian woman’s flowers and get grounded again, he glanced inadvertently into the window. Sleuthiness turned into horror as he was frozen like a character in a Stephen King novel.
The old Asian woman was nearly naked!
I used this technique a lot when writing my new romantic comedy Those Crazy Notions of Otherwise Intelligent People. Yes, it’s true, real men also write romantic comedies along with the ladies. I have the “real man” pedigree growing up in Montana and Wyoming, where as a young boy, my brothers and I raced by horseback across the grass pastures of my grandfather’s ranch. There is no video game that can match the exhilaration of riding full speed on the back of a galloping horse. With a full access nature pass, I swam, rafted and fished many of the lakes and rivers of Wyoming. Early inspiration hit when I located and walked down the same dirt path Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used to hunker down in their Hole in the Wall hideout. My brothers and I carried fishing poles, instead of guns, that is when we didn’t have a pretend posse chasing us. I was able to put myself through college playing basketball, getting degrees in Theatre and Broadcasting. Later I began writing and developing stories for film and television, until 2006 when I became the Editor of Dramabiz Magazine, a theatre business management monthly.
How does a writer describe himself--with a story, of course? About 20 years ago, I flew to Wyoming to visit my family. Seated next to me on the airplane, was a gentleman with long, white hair, pulled back in a ponytail wrapped in leather ties with beautiful beads. We fell into an easy conversation telling each other our “stories”. He spoke of his tribe, their history and traditions. I countered with my clan, cowboys and Irish and German ancestors. In true “cowboys and Indians” fashion, the conversation turned to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and “Yellow Hair”. Generations of Dorrs living in Wyoming and Montana heard the stories—and not the kind you read in history books. We had much disdain for George Armstrong Custer, the great injustice the U.S. Government put on the native Indians and the fiction portrayed as historical fact. Finding common historical ground, the gray haired man shared how this too is a story passed down through the generations in his family, in fact some of his relatives died as they fought the American encroachment led by “Yellow Hair.” At the end of our trip, my new friend revealed that he was the official storyteller for the Oglala Sioux Nation. He expressed honor in meeting another tribe’s storyteller, which struck me. He said that I, just like him, was destined to be a storyteller, and that it was my responsibility to pass down my tribe’s history. Years later, I have come to realize what he meant. I have always felt a need to tell stories, as did my father and his father. Ironically, as I reflect back, I remember that I wrote my first play after my father took me to the battlefield at Little Big Horn and explained the truth behind the Indian Nations last great victory. I was in third grade. Who am I? My name is Joel Michael Dorr and I’m a storyteller from Wyoming.
Thanks so much, Joel, but did he have to be named Bob? The elderly lady I saw was dancing naked under the moon. Oh, I almost forgot.