I dropped in on my friend Becca’s site today – and she claims she forgot to be funny; but, I peed my pants laughing at her lame attempt to not be funny.
I mean, really, what’s unfunny about frizzy hair? Maybe my efforts to grow a goatee? Could be. You see, it keeps coming in in patches, so instead of looking like a sinister scientist who’s creating life from dead body parts, I look like a goat who’s been in a fight with a weed whacker.
Seriously, though, I’m trying not to get ready for Halloween, and that’s scary. See, my wife thinks its neat to stand by the door and hand out candy to grubby little crumb snatchers from up and down the block who give you the evil eye because your candy’s so cheap, and who insist on trekking across your newly sodded lawn. You want to yell at them, but since you already have a reputation as the neighborhood Grinch, and your wife’s standing behind you with hands on hips and a stern expression, you just stand there and smile – well, more like a grimace.
Becca, you think you know hardship? Let me tell you hardship. Try getting up in the morning and finding nothing in the pantry but half a jar of peanut butter but no crackers, and you forgot to put a can of beer in the fridge, so the beer and peanut butter breakfast you planned to eat is with whole wheat toast (gag!) and warm beer (the English will pay for this indignity). When you’ve faced the problems I’ve faced, talk to me.
I could go on and on; but, my neighbor accuses me of going on and on too much, so I won’t. Oh, wait; there is one more little problem I just have to share; my wife asked (well, ordered really) me to pick up Trick or Treat candy the last time I went to the store – and, don’t you know it, I forgot. She thinks its in the pantry. I have just over a week to figure out how to sneak out to the store and sneak the damn stuff back into the house. Curses!
I hate Halloween. Bah, humbug. Oh no, wrong holiday. Doesn’t matter; hate that one too.
When I was a kid, I remember reading somewhere an article about the ‘Talented Tenth.’ This was a theory that said basically ten percent of the population was responsible for most of society’s progress while the remaining 90% was sort of ‘along for the ride.’ I have to admit that my observations as I matured didn’t do much to contradict that belief; that is, until I started looking more closely at how people behave.
After five decades of watching people in societies around the globe, under all kinds of circumstances from almost idyllic peaceful circumstances to the stench and bloodshed of war, I have come to the conclusion that the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory missed it by a bit. My observations, admittedly anecdotal rather than scientific, have led me to believe that people in groups tend to fall into a Gaussian distribution (so called for German mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss, who popularized its use to analyze astronomical data), otherwise known as a Bell Curve or normal distribution because of its graphic shape. Basically, in a normal distribution, the highest point in the curve, or the top of the bell, represents the most probable event or situation, with all possible occurrences equally distributed around it, creating a downward-sloping line on each side of the peak.
So, how have I observed people to sort themselves out in the normal distribution? Like I said, it’s not empirical data, but it seems to work out to a ratio of 20-60-20. That is, 20% on what I call the ‘good’ or ‘productive’ side, 20% on the ‘bad’ or ‘dysfunctional’ side, and the remaining 60% evenly distributed in the main or central part of the bell. I guess you could say we 60% are the ballast that keeps society on a somewhat even keel.
Now, on the ‘good’ side, we have the Einsteins, the Michelangelos, the Mother Theresas, and others who come up with the new, bold ideas; who go where no one has gone before. These are the people who make things happen for the betterment of the whole society. On the ‘bad’ side, we have the Hitlers, the Jeffrey Daumers, and the idiots who change lanes on the beltway without signaling, cutting in front of cars so close they cause them to stamp on their brakes, creating massive traffic snarls and sometimes causing fatal accidents. These are the people who take guns to school and use classmates and teachers for target practice before turning the guns on themselves.
While the ‘good’ side of the bell is busy trying to help society progress, the ‘bad’ side is constantly trying to pull it down. You might think that leaves those of us in the middle 60% at the mercy of geniuses and madmen; but, you’d be wrong. Like the ballast in a ship, we serve to keep things from going too far in one direction or another. The geniuses are often so deep in their vision of the future, they fail to solidly ground themselves in the present. We dullards of the so-so 60% keep them grounded in reality. At the same time, our outrage when the ‘bad-siders’ go too far helps to keep society from descending into total chaos.
As far as I know, no one has seriously studied this phenomenon. If they have, I’d be interested in seeing the results, just to see how far I am off the mark. But, I think that if one day this is ever studied, my theory will be somewhere in the neighborhood of the reality. After all, under the rules of normal distribution, it should be somewhere near the middle of the bell.
The one thing that you can be sure that all writers have in common is that at some point we have read a book or article on the writing craft. One thing that I have encountered a number of times in reading about writing is the statement that it is not true that characters can take over a story.
This is usually accompanied by detailed instructions on outlining a story, whether it’s a short story or novel, before you begin writing. I suppose if you happen to be a WWO, a writer who outlines, this is probably true. I don’t know what applies to WWNO, writers who never outline, because I fall somewhere in between. I usually start with a fairly clear idea in mind as to where I want the story to go, who the characters are, the nature of the conflict, and the setting. I write a concise description of the main plot, make a list of the characters, and even sometimes make a time line.
In most of the stories I write, things go according to plan. But, on occasion, things take a turn that I have not planned for. Because I tend to write serial stories, novels and short stories, I try to carry over the main theme from story to story. Sometimes, though, either readers who have taken a particular liking to a character, and offer compelling justifications for their views, or the characters themselves, turn my nice neat story line on its ear.
About a year ago, for instance, just for fun, I wrote a short story about an urban kid with money problems. He’d borrowed money from a loan shark and couldn’t make his payments. This particularly story had a postal theme, so I gave it the title, “Dead Letter.” The plot was simple; my protagonist was trying to lay low to keep from getting his legs broken, so he changed his name and moved. Unfortunately for him, the Post Office tracked him down by delivering a letter sent to his old name and address to his new digs and, you guessed it, the loan shark found him.
I ended the story with a shotgun blast through the door and him being slammed against the wall. Fortunately, I didn’t specifically say that the shot had killed him; I preferred to allow readers to come to their own conclusion. One perceptive reader, though, had taken a liken to my character, Louis Dumkowski, and sent me an email asking if I could do a follow on story bringing him back to life. While I don’t normally make such drastic changes because of just one reader, her email was so sincere, I decided to take a crack at it.
Since I hadn’t actually killed Louis, in the second story I had him regain consciousness with a chest full of splinters from the door, which had absorbed almost all of the buck shot from the shotgun. Now, of course, I had to give him a new challenge, so I put him on the run. After all, if the loan shark learned that he’d failed, he might try again. Doing the second story got me interested in Louis’s fate, so I did a few more, putting him in one crazy situation after another. Some readers liked it, and kept asking for more.
Louis matured a bit, but only a bit, from story to story; mostly with the help of his high school buddy, Cleatus Washington. And I finally wrote a confrontation story, with Cleatus convincing Louis to face the loan shark. That led to some more humorous situations as the loan shark, a superstitious street punk named Vinnie ‘the Enforcer’ Williams, was so freaked that he hadn’t killed Louis, he hired him to collect loans. For good measure, he hired Cleatus as well.
A couple more stories had the two of them encountering customers, and developing a conscience. Well, Cleatus developed a conscience, and drug Louis along, which brought me to the last story in the series – or at the last one that I’ve written.
My plan was for Cleatus to convince Louis that they should stop bleeding the poor people in the neighborhood and get into a more decent line of work. My plan was to have a confrontation with Vinnie, perhaps with a bloody nose or two, but with Louis prevailing in the end. As I wrote, I could see the story in my head like an old black and white B movie, and the dialogue was clear in my head. The problem was, these two reprobates didn’t want to say what I’d planned for them to say. And, when Vinnie appears near the end of the story, the confrontation just didn’t seem the way they wanted to go. He’d been around them so long; well, actually, he’d been spending most of his time soaking up Jack Daniels and coke in the local bar while they did all the work, but his earlier nearly religious superstition, and the fact that he was sponging off his uncle, didn’t make a fight logical. What the characters wanted to do, in fact, was become respectable and liked members of the community. So, I just let the movie play out, and the three of them end up shaking hands and deciding to begin helping the community – for a profit of course; they didn’t totally change their mercenary ways.
The response to “Outside Parcel” was immediate. One reader expressed pleasure that the guys were trying to go straight, and looked forward to their new adventures. As for me, I’m just curious to see what they might get up to the next time I sit down and start typing.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the adventures of Louis and Cleatus, check out “Dead Letter,” “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed Package,” “Rural Free Delivery,” and “Outside Parcel” at http://www.fictionwritersplatform.net.