Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Popping Gum, Tapping Fingers, and 101 Things We Love to Hate

You’ve been standing in the checkout line for five minutes, and the poor cashier is visibly distressed as she tries to rush all the customers through. You’ve only got a candy bar and a head of lettuce, plus the grocery store is air conditioned, so it’s not the end of the world. The lady in front of you has an overflowing carriage, and - you can tell from the size of her chunky wallet - a lot of coupons. You know it’s going to be a while, so you’ve taken to flipping through a magazine sitting at the checkout counter.

That’s when you hear it. At first, you think it might be a trick of your desperate imagination – but no! There it is again! You look up at the man who has just strolled behind you, and realize he is the source of the subtle hint of wintergreen in the air, and the source of that noise.

Suddenly you’re aware of all the noises – not just the elastic snap of chewing gum bubbles, but also manicured fingers tapping, neck joints cracking, off-key whistling… it fills the inside of your skull until you feel like you have to scream.

These little quirks, the things that trigger our irrationally angry responses, are the ones that lead us to negatively judge the people around us… and the characters we read.

Take Dolores Umbridge for example. We knew we hated her from the moment she first stuck her mousy little face into Harry’s business. Nothing Umbridge did at the start was wrong, per se, but we instantly knew we hated her. It was in the details. Her pink cardigan sweater was too “pretty” for the mystique and magic of Hogwarts. Her kitten plates were disgustingly cute. Every time she wanted to say something, she said, “Ahem.” It was that “ahem” that had us from the start.

It’s brilliant, really.

Writing an annoying character is no different than experiencing one. Think – what are the little things? The things that make us want to strangle a complete stranger? You don’t want to tell your reader that

George was an annoying git. From his head to his toes, there was not a single thing about him she could stand.

but rather

George sniffed at the air with repulsion and began picking at the dirt beneath his fingernails, clicking his tongue along with the second hand on the clock.  She covered her ears, but the noise echoed in her head, and all she could see when she closed her eyes was his nose in the air, like he was better than her.

Which one would you rather read?  Which one gives a clearer image of George?  The real majesty of villain - major, minor, or annoyance - is in the details, because the details connect to the reader, and suddenly it's a little easier to fit into the protagonist's shoes... because we all know someone a little like Dolores Umbridge, and we'd like nothing better than to set centaurs loose on her.

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