I’ve read several thoughtful pieces on the passing of Anthony Bourdain A sensitive, talented and self-doubting man complicated by addiction and depression, which he fought most of his life. As someone (and I don’t know how many other tens of millions) who deals with depression, I’d like to humbly add what life lessons Bourdain taught me.
On Parts Unknown, he sold his political views with sleight of hand. You thought you were watching an exotic food show, or a travelog filled with interesting people, but after being inundated with a season or two, you realized that Bourdain's view of food and cooking was more than about local color. His subtext was about what a culture can afford to eat, what it likes to eat, what it is conditioned to eat, and when, due to affluence, it craves something new and different. These are complex forms of self-expression and cultural identity, and defined mostly by economics or politics.
If Bourdain had trained his critical eye on our country, he’d be asking why so many of us are gluttons for fast food, and even the idea of four, always inexpensive, high calorie meals a day? Or why do we go to Whole Foods and spend $150 when $100 would have bought a comparable basket at a more modest supermarket? Why do we pay $100 for a Chard loved by Beyonce? Why do we go on diets? Why do we go to gyms or yoga hoping for obedience from our bodies? Food drives us crazy. Perhaps there’s a hidden, even unconscious agenda behind what we put ourselves through. The pyramid of survival and happiness starts with food, education, and shelter, but then the simple plan gets blown out by status seeking, greed, fear, ambition, novelty and the political views to justify what we’ve become.
Until his mid-forties, Bourdain knew from life as an addict, suffering from depression, that each day was as precious as it was precarious. Then, almost overnight, he caught a break by writing Kitchen Confidentialand going to culinary school. Ultimately, he became a star in the celebrity firmament. Terra Incognito for our hero. He happily forgot the lessons of being broke and on the street, I believe, because he thought he had escaped them. Instead of heroin, he became addicted to his success, and understandably so. Millions of us loved watching him and hearing what he had to say. I think he likely attributed his self doubt, which always returned unexpectedly, to a former life of steep vulnerability, thinking that it no longer mattered. Of course it mattered, and down deep he had to know that, but he couldn’t let go of a lifestyle that was the envy of so many people. He looked at low self-esteem as the enemy, instead of what it is—the canary in the coal-mine, warning of serious danger ahead.
One bad night filled with unimaginably wretched feelings may amount to nothing in the morning, but one time it just might be enough to want to close your eyes for good. That’s my real takeaway from an extraordinary, troubled American life. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, because few others will care as much as you should. Your worst moments should be your wake up call. That is not boastful piety. I think Bourdain, had he survived the hours before his death, might have had some moments of clarity where he got real with himself.
Try to have one of your characters do or say something in the course of the narrative that’s totally original…something that’s never been done in another movie or film. This is not easy to achieve, but if you have an imagination, have some fun with it. You’ll go down a lot of dead ends, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up on a mountain peak. Remember that the event has to be plausible, but originality is usually memorable. No matter how many crime stories we read, for example, the great ones take our thoughts and emotions to unexplored places. It’s what readers talk about in reviews and blogs.
Building a character arc should be done over the span of the novel. Just like it’s a writing sin to have an information plot dump in the first chapter of your book, likewise your characters shouldn’t reveal themselves right away. One aspect at a time—brought out by action rather than exposition—keeps the reader engaged.
Most writers are more comfortable delineating one sex (or gender) over another, which often dictates their main characters and the genre a writer chooses. You can still be a male and write fantasy romances, or a female skilled at describing war scenes, but whatever your strength, play to it.
Very few writers do everything well. The best write about what they know, and their characters evoke passion, empathy or curiosity in a reader.
It’s great to surprise a reader with the unexpected, helping give a twist to the plot and the character, but whatever transpires, it must have credibility. Unless she’s a prodigy, a twelve year old girl is not going to solve the murder of her parents that happened ten years earlier. A surgeon who graduated from Harvard is not likely to leave a sponge behind in his patient’s abdomen. If you go for low probability events, or extreme twists, you have to back them up with plausible explanations. The “willing suspension of disbelief” only goes so far. Once a reader becomes skeptical that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, it’s tough to win them back.
Great characters, to enhance their arc, should have a fourth or fifth gear that seems to come out of nowhere. For example, villains can turn into heroes with an act of kindness that we would never have anticipated, yet when we read the novel closely, we realize that the seed of kindness was planted by the writer from the beginning. Similarly, characters we start off admiring suddenly disappoint us when they hurt someone they love. If they don’t realize what they’ve done, figuring out the “why” makes them even more interesting. Well-conceived characters can help with plot troubles, too, if the writer wakes one morning and isn’t sure where his or her story is going (happens to most of us). Instead of robbing a bank, for example, your destitute character decides to give away his last fifty dollars to a stranger. The wife who has been cheated on, instead of taking revenge on her husband, is filled with insights about her father. A deeply-felt, richly-imagined character is your writing buddy, your co-conspirator, and their importance to the final product can’t be overstated.
There may be a thousand and one books on how to write a novel, filled with sound observations, but when it comes to creating and developing characters, many emphasize the mechanical over the intuitive. Over decades, here’s what I’ve painstakingly learned about making your characters authentic, original and memorable.
Stay tuned for the next post!
Most writers begin the writing process by working on plot. While plot is obviously important, I also like to know everything possible about my main characters, even if I never use many of their details in the novels. Whether you take voluminous notes about them, or talk out loud to them (and they talk back to you), it’s rarely enough. You need to imagine what they would do off the page, i.e., if they had to attend your Uncle George’s July fourth barbecue, or somehow landed in another novel altogether. Make them your best friends or worst enemies. Whether they come from your imagination or real life (or a combination thereof), you should be inside your characters a few hours every day—before you write a single word. Think of method acting. Characters aren’t simply pawns in a plot—they transcend it. They are what you remember long after the plot is often forgotten.
On the eve of your inauguration to the highest office in the land, I wanted to pass along the thoughts of someone you’ll likely never know or meet. I don’t mean to be a scolding parent. I’m just Joe Citizen, living in a great country.
If you want me to like you, I hope you can start by being more civil. Be respectful of people whose politics you don’t agree with or whose words have hurt you. Show that open mindedness is preferable to reflex partisanship. Erase “loser,” “garbage” and other name-calling from your vocabulary. Think of all of us Joe Citizens as your extended family. We don’t expect to be invited to Thanksgiving or Christmas at the White House, but look us in the eye and tell us the truth whenever possible.
If you want me to respect you, study and read the appropriate material before you speak on any serious subject. Shooting from the hip is for people who don’t know the importance of consequences. Refrain from thinking of world leaders as a battle of the superheroes or clash of the titans, but if you must, know that winning is not a zero-sum game. Don’t keep secrets that you wouldn’t abide in others. Refrain from rumors. To paraphrase a song of your generation and mine, love and tolerance are a temple, love and tolerance are the highest thing.
If you want me to have faith in your presidency, never do anything that I’d be ashamed of if I did it, because sooner or later the word gets out. Everything you’ve done in the past, I forgive you. Everything you do in the future, our lives depend on it. So do our children’s and grandchildren’s. Trust the judgment and wisdom of people around you who do their jobs well. That’s about it.
Michael R. French
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Readers Become 'Friends' with Main Characters of Michael French's Latest Book
Michael sits down to chat with host Dan Mayfield about his characters social media. You can "friend" Alex Baten and Jaleel Robeson here:
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.