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Character Corner: "Return Policy" by Michael Snyder

First, let’s keep the FTC’s new blogger disclosure monitor people happy: I got a free copy of Return Policy from a book giveaway on K.M. Weiland’s blog. Neither of these fine folks expected me to review it at all. (But note, you can find them as “@snydermanwrites” and “@KMWeiland” on Twitter.)

Ok. I finished reading Return Policy a couple of weeks ago. It was a solid midlist novel. Entertaining. Very funny in spots, very moving and compelling in others, but here and there I felt the plot was weak. At a couple of critical spots, characters both major and minor fail to do obvious things that, had they done them, would have avoided a lot of trouble that Snyder obviously wanted create for his poor characters. Snyder may be an author to watch, but this isn’t likely to be his breakout book. I give it three stars.

On to the characters. Snyder has three principal characters in this book, and each one is told from the first person POV. That’s a bold choice, because it demands a very high level of craft to keep the characters distinct. It’s the right choice for this book, because first person POV allows him to clearly convey each character’s different opinions and attitudes towards one another and their different interpretations of the book’s plot events. Much of the story’s nuance hinges on the types of miscommunications that can arise from people’s different opinions and interpretations, so going with first person was effective for that.

Snyder structured the book as a sequence of scenes that switch round-robin among the POV characters. But judging by the number of times I found myself confused in the middle of dialogue as to who was saying what, or having to backtrack to remember which character ‘owned’ the scene, I’d say Snyder has some work to do in making the characters distinctive in their details. Their broad strokes are clearly different, but down in the nitty-gritty of words on the page, at times I found them running together.

Wally

Wally Finneran is the book’s central character. He’s a divorced guy with a pretty bleak outlook on life, but given his backstory (which I won’t spoil) you can hardly blame him. One thing I found interesting about Wally is that he’s a writer. I know, cliche alert, right? How many times have we seen writers take “write what you know” a little too seriously and write about characters who are writers? But in this case Snyder makes it work because Wally is not exactly a fan of his own stuff. In fact, he thinks he’s crap, which ends up being pretty amusing. [Update: having recently re-read something I wrote 3 years, ago, I know exactly how Wally feels.]

My main problem with Wally is that overall, he’s too passive. Wally spends way too much of the book letting events push him around, before he finally grows a pair and exerts some sort of influence over his destiny. While his backstory makes this believable, I still ended up feeling sorry for him more than I actually rooted for him. To be fair, I think much of the point of the book was to force Wally not to be so passive. There’s nothing wrong with that as a character arc. This may be a matter of my own tastes as much as anything, it didn’t really grab me.

Shaq

Shaq is a mentally ill dude who lives at a homeless shelter. For my money, Shaq was the most interesting character in the book, and he’s where Snyder really shines. Snyder did a great job of portraying Shaq’s particular variety of crazy-slash-incapacitated in a way that was both believable and at the same time didn’t reduce him to another pitiable wretch of a character. For all of Shaq’s problems and hardships, he left the man with his share of dignity.

But here’s the twist: Snyder also used Shaq’s mental problems to drive some of the book’s central and most compelling mysteries. And he did it really, really well. Read Return Policy for that if nothing else, and pay attention. It’s a marvelous example of using character flaws to drive mystery.

Ozena

Ozena is a telephone service representative for an espresso machine company. She is in many ways the book’s emotional heart, its source of warmth and compassion. She is perhaps the character I empathized with the most, because Snyder did a very nice job conveying her mixture of unfailing love for her very high-maintenance, special needs son. I know how hard it is raising normal kids; they’re high maintenance enough. I can’t even imagine the toll that year after year of caring for her little Leroy Jr. would take, knowing that he’ll never grow up like other kids. But she loves him anyway, and Snyder’s portrayal of this whole package—the emotional and logistical complications of Ozena’s life—was very genuine and tender. I liked Ozena.

Summary

As I said, I got a free copy of the book, which probably biases me in some inevitable fashion towards it. But despite the book’s plot weaknesses, I wouldn’t have been sorry had I paid list price for it. In the end, it is a portrait of three people, each in their own ways coping with tragedy. Snyder does yeoman work in making three people’s very different reactions to tragedy all feel believable. I like books about characters (no surprise there), and this book has three good ones. If you’re like me in that regard, give it a try.

November 13, 2009 00:30 UTC

Tags: character corner, Michael Snyder, passivity, dialogue, distinctive

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Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

Characters are never alone. You ever notice that? Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Why is this? Psychologically it’s because people are social creatures. We go better together. Some part of us needs to be able to share our thoughts and feelings with others. But as writers, we create sidekicks and foils because relationships are a marvelous tool for revealing your characters.

Even characters who seem alone, aren’t. There’s always a sidekick, even if it isn’t human. Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, had his volleyball. Bruce Dern’s character in the Sci-Fi classic Silent Running had three cute little robots with him. And of course, Keir Dullea’s murderous computer nemesis in 2001: A Space Odyssey needs no explanation at all. Those characters’ sidekicks weren’t people, but they still provided a relationship that revealed a lot about the character.

You could probably write a whole book on this, but let me instead just give three highlights, three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

Any time you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. You might have your love-struck hero take up volunteering at an animal shelter, because he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog, despite his own allergies (they’ve got pills for that, right?) just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too. Not long ago, I finished Michael Snyder’s book Return Policy, in which there’s a sub-plot about one character seeking to land a promotion by voluntarily taking on a tedious, boring data entry job that everyone else in her office has been avoiding. It means longer hours, time away from her son, but she knows it will make her manager look good and hopes it will tip the scales toward her.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. For example, you might have a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends. His notion is that he’s creating opportunities for fun and that this will make people like him. How he reacts says a lot: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser to boot? How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed? It’s this interaction between the characters that is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Or going back to the love-struck mangy dog owner, while that behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: he doesn’t actually care about the dog, except to the extent that the dog can help win him the girl. And how disrespectful he must be of her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way, or that she won’t see right through him. Does he even actually love her for herself? If he’s so willing to alter his outward image—and mask his inward nature—to impress her, perhaps he is more attracted to his outward image of her than to the person she is underneath.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Affection can mask selfishness. Competition can mask self-importance. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals. It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by letting them learn something new about your characters that they didn’t necessarily expect.

Show multiple points of view

Finally, as I wrote last month, nobody sees themselves the same as other people see them. If your story has multiple POV characters, you can readily exploit this to show the contrast. For example, the competitive boy sees his competitive habit as an attempt to create fun between himself and his friends. But his friends, who have grown weary of seeing who can throw a crumpled napkin into the trash can from the farthest away, see it as something else: annoying egotism.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs, though, that goes deeper than simply showing a contrast between some character’s self-opinion and how others see him, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is to say, when you’re done showing both parties’ view of the situation, have you left the reader wondering who is right?

If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to also create a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by springing yet another layer on the reader, revealing that nobody is right! Reveal that he’s not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he creates all these competitive situations because really he’s struggling to reassure himself of his own abilities.

It’s not a meaningless reversal, of course. It’s not there just to keep the reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a meaningful character arc. But I hope that at least gives you gives a taste of how these strategies—just like people—go better together than alone.

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

Tags: character, relationships, Michael Snyder, goals, reversals

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