“We are what we are.” Felix Ungar to Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple
Sick with stuffy nose and post-Thanksgiving collapse, I flipped the channel to Turner Classic Movies so I could zone out with some soft lighting, calm music, and old-school story. I got that plus a great lesson in characterization. If you aspire to write great characters, see the 1968 film or read the frequently reprised play, The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.
Watch Felix move through a scene without saying more than twenty words–how he throws out his back in the midst of a suicide attempt or clears his sinuses with OCD flair in the middle of a diner. You’ll see how Simon paints character through wonderfully excessive physicality.
Observe the poker game in Oscar Madison’s disgusting home full of ancient pizza slices and dust bunnies the size of cats, and see how a group of secondary characters (at first just sweaty, surly, unimpressive men) become a gaggle of high-drama hysterics at the prospect of Felix being suicidal. Simon understands how to sweep broad strokes with his brush, then come back and fill in the shadows, the light, the muscles, the heart and soul. Each man is unique with every word, twitch, grunt. We end up caring about all of them. Not one character is needless background, merely warming a seat. Everyone matters.
But the main reason The Odd Couple should be subject of study for all writers is how it serves metaphorically for a golden rule of characterization, every time a conversation erupts in your story. Oscar and Felix are drawn together, magnetically, for a reason, so this story can be told: they push and pull upon each other, yanking the blinders off, hot lamping and shadowing, lifting up and squashing down. These guys go from friendship to enemies in the course of a conflict that peaks in silent stand-off (yet another instance of Simon’s slapstick, purely physical comedy that says more than any words). These guys foil one another in mere movement–even in every breath Felix takes. Who can’t relate to that? There has been at least one person in our lives whose neck we wanted to wring.
Watch Oscar and Felix at work. They are what they are in perfect contrast to each other, and in their short stint as each other’s “wives” they learn how they each need to grow a little bit more each other’s direction. Then go write your next dialogue between any two characters. What’s at stake? Who’s wanting what, and how are each in the way of these wants?
Foil, foil, foil each other, all you characters in our fiction. Let that fresh conflict ensue in every scene. Even two best friends in a story should enhance each other’s differences; how?
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is another fantastic read for studying just this skill. Beneatha, Ruth, Walter, and Mama are masters of foiling another, and like Oscar and Felix, their entrapment in a small space escalates the conflicts. Even if you’re not much into writing dialogue, remember that when your characters do speak and when scenes do unfold, foil is the operative word. Someone must be stopped in the achievement of his goal; someone must be prevented from getting exactly what she wants. Otherwise, we won’t stick around till the end.
If you just can’t pick up another book this holiday rush, make a New Year’s resolution to support your local community theater. Consider seeing a play like taking a class in characterization. Playwrights get the complete urgency of foiled characters with the restless audience waiting to be entertained. I personally can’t wait to see Amadeus from PlayMakers along with the NC Symphony this weekend. I know I won’t only get fabulous theater and incredible music; I’ll get another example of character foiled again: Mozart, full of mania and graceless humor, but so genius the world itself could not bear him. Talk about obstacles. Man versus self, man versus world. Foils everywhere you look.
Watch a play, see a film, and take note. See what these characters are and make that black and white in the places where you can. You are already doing this in your writing, or you wouldn’t feel the momentum, and no doubt, you need to do it more.
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who is interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
1. Who or what in your life is your biggest foil? Why? How?
2. Think of a favorite character in your book and write about who foils him or her the most. Write a letter to the character about how to handle this foil, or, write a letter of complaint ot the foil.
3. Start a story with this line, “Curses! (Insert your own expletive) Foiled again!”
4. Make a list of how your protagonist is a hero to some and a villain to others. Every character has a beef with someone. Then make a list of how your protagonist is a foil to every person s/he meets. Write a scene exploring at least of these items on the list.
5. The Day from Hell happens to everyone. What’s one day where you were foiled at every turn? Write that story.
6. Write an acrostic poem using FOILED AGAIN as the phrase to generate one sentence about every character in your story (as many characters as you can address). Each sentence must address how the character foils or is foiled.