Foiled at Every Turn

Post Date: December 3rd, 2010

“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.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Lyn, for another excellent lesson for the craft of writing. It seems like your lessons for writing are also good mirrors for human life–and of course that is what art is all about–holding up the mirror. I think of the foils in scripture, too, and how instructive the places of tension are for showing us truth and possibility. I believe we meet God in those contradictions.
    Thanks for sharing your good teaching skills, too. I am hungry to read more of your creative work, too–you are good at crafting characters that connect.

  2. Thank you, Marcia. The mirror analogy is spot on, because often what irritates us most is another is much like us looking at our own reflection. We can’t see that mote in our own eye so we play it out in our relationships and no doubt in our fiction. Those times when we writers “write for revenge” are probably akin to doing some serious self-analysis–without even realizing it! My foiling, dueling characters are both me. Spirit is in the places of conflict if we choose to see It; God is indeed in the tough spaces.

  3. I really like what you’re implying here, Lyn: how characters, as in the case of Felix and Oscar create the story, and not the other way around.
    When I was researching my first novel (there were setting and plot items to research), I decided to really define my core characters, to write down how they would act around one another – in good times and bad. Once I had that nailed to be best of my ability, the story just fell together.

  4. I like the idea of dress rehearsal, those back-story, back-stage passes our characters make at one another. 🙂 That gets us knowing them in ways where we can talk about them like our annoying or beloved neighbors.

    “Fell together” is a good description of how writing can happen after all this practice. While I’m a fan of outlining and plot structuring in early phases, I’m also a fan of writing all kinds of scenes in my head as outtakes, knowing they may never get used, but all of this thought makes for magic later as you’re drafting the tale.












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