Wimps

Most literary agents will tell you there is one type of story they don't ever want to see—even if it's beautifully written and set in an exotic Shangri-la. Crusty old editors recoil at the sight of them. Creative writing teachers often break out in hives when one of their students writes one. What is this dreaded monstrosity?

It's the wimpy housewife story.

Here is the usual scenario: A wimpy housewife who is a total klutz at everything—naive, ignorant, and yes, well, maybe even a little dumb—is stepped on by, that's right, her callous, nasty, and philandering husband.

The wimpy housewife does little about her problem except suffer for, oh, forty or fifty thousand words, until one day she's sparked into action, usually because a neighbor, friend, or therapist tells her she ought to, damn it, do something. Armed with this advice, the wimpy housewife, rather than confronting her problems, runs away to "find herself." She usually ends up having an affair with a married man, getting a job in a semiglamorous occupation such as advertising, journalism, top-of-the-market real estate, the arts. The wimpy housewife eventually learns to be self-sufficient, realizes that, yes, she too is a human being worthy of dignity, and finally makes it to the Top and marries Mr. Just Fine.

There's another version of this story, the wimpy accountant. The wimpy accountant is the male version of the wimpy housewife. He's a total klutz at everything—naive, ignorant, and yes, well, maybe even a little dumb—who is stepped on by, that's right, his callous, nasty, skirt-chasing boss. The wimpy accountant does little about his problem except suffer for, oh, forty or fifty thousand words . . .

You get the idea.

The problem with the wimpy housewife/accountant story is that even the potential market for the stories—wimpy housewives and wimpy accountants yearning to be free—will reject the story. Why? Because it's not possible to sympathize with a character who in the beginning is so wimpy that all he or she can do is suffer and wallow in self-pity. Such characters are what Edwin h. Peeples in A Professional Storywriters Handbook (1960) calls "pathetic." He says we're contemptuous of pathetic characters "who do nothing but suffer, even if they do it stoically."

The wimpy housewife/accountant story fails because the wimpy protagonist is not worth reading about until the character has "found her/himself," and by then it's too late for the weary reader.

There is nothing wrong with starting out with a character who is a wimp. Nor is there anything wrong with having a character who is a housewife or an accountant. Shirley Valentine was an extremely successful novel, play, and film about a wimpy housewife. What made her interesting was that she was full of humorous and profound insights into her condition, and she did something about her plight—she fled to a Greek island and had a love affair.

The problem then, is not that a character is a wimp, but rather that he or she is, well, constipated. They cannot move. It is the constipated character that must be avoided. Create all the wimps you want, they can develop into giant killers and dragon slayers, but such characters won't grow unless they take actions and engage in conflicts. If they remain wimpy and constipated, you'll never be able to use them in your damn good novel.

To write a damn good novel, the main characters, wimps included, must become dynamic.

h dynamic character is driven. That is, the character, such as Shirley Valentine, wants something desperately. This desperation is the dynamo inside that fires up characters and pushes them into action.

Constipated wimps have only one dimension: They are long suffering. Dynamic characters have conflicting emotions and desires and are torn apart by strong emotions, such as ambition and love, or fear and patriotism, or faith and lust, or whatever. Inner emotional fires are raging; forces are pulling dynamic characters in more than one direction. Dynamic characters resolve these inner conflicts by taking actions that will lead to more story conflict and more inner conflict.

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