Did you ever ride on the back of a garbage truck as a black man in 1950s Pittsburgh? Or narrowly miss a shot at playing baseball in the Major Leagues? Probably not. I didn’t either. However, when you sink into the leather seats of the theater surrounded by darkness except for the lighted screen and the held breaths of other moviegoers, you’re transported into the world of trash collector and would-be baseball star Troy Maxson. The movie Fences based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson offers a master class in how to craft a novel.
Make your characters multi-layered and complex.
In the movie, Maxson, played by Denzel Washington, is charming and playful, yet he can also be cruel, his caustic monologues often making his younger son flinch and his wife turn away. He wants to protect his boy from the disappointments of a racist America, while also fearing that his son will shine in ways he never could. Even as he pushes away those closest to him, you never doubt how fiercely he loves in the only way he knows how.
Our first instinct as writers is often to go with one-dimensional characters who are good, bad, happy, sad, bitter, or sweet. You get the idea. The characters we create in our fiction should be just as complex as Maxson and the rest of us. Even the baddest of bad guys in thrillers can have a soft spot, something that makes him smile, someone who renders him vulnerable and puts a dent in his armor. It’s often those redeemable, human qualities that make the character come alive on the page and grab us in unexpected ways.
Deepen characterization through dialogue and details.
Fences uses the boisterous voice of Maxson to show the quiet desperation of a man who picks up other people’s trash all day, comes home and whacks a baseball hanging from a tattered rope in his backyard, makes love to his wife in a cramped little house and then does it all over again the next day. Those are the kinds of details that bring authenticity to our stories and richness to our characters.
In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Maxson’s wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, sheds her quiet demeanor and delivers one of those lines that makes you tremble and forget to breathe:
“You not the only one who’s got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”
How powerful is that? In that one piece of dialogue, we learn so much about Rose. She’s a strong, long-suffering woman who’s had to swallow her own dreams for the sake of her family. Let’s think about how the dialogue in our own novels not only advances the story, but also helps the reader understand who the character is at her core.
Explore universal truths that connect with readers.
The books I enjoy most have something important to say about the world, not in a preachy sense, but in a way that makes me say “aha” and helps me understand humanity through a new lens. Fences explored loss, racism, squandered chances, abandoned hopes, fatherhood, manhood, suppressed dreams and more. Maxson delivered a simple truth when he described how he’s survived over the years by “taking the crookeds with the straights.”
Our novels should be more than a series of acts and scenes that entertain, but do little else. Universal truths are ones that help us make sense of life and allow us to see ourselves in the characters we root for on the page. Again, while we may not look like Maxson or have his life experience, we know what it’s like to lament over unfulfilled dreams and we understand the toll that merely surviving takes on us and those we love. Don’t give your readers a sermon, but tell a story that builds empathy, one that connects on a visceral level with their own wants, needs, joys and struggles.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.