The Narrative In All of Us

What is your recipe for writing such vivid characters?
This is not in any way a facetious answer to this, but: I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it — other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge. I listen to what everyone says, I watch little idiosyncratic behavior, people tell me a joke and I remember it. People tell me an interesting story in their life and I remember it.”
- An interview with Quentin Tarantino from The Talks
Downtown Athens. Photo: theodysseyonline.com

As I left a barber shop in downtown Athens, GA, I saw a homeless man showered in sunlight, a circular magnifying glass in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. At the tip of the cigarette was an intense glow of focalized sunlight. In the moment it took to slow my pace and watch as the smoke started to rise, I learned about the nature of ingenuity. The story was so beautiful and simple: A man stuck in the depths of his necessities — justifiable or not — found an answer by the simplest and cheapest method.

A certain “shock factor” seems to guide our attention in daily literature. Whether it’s a shooting, a bombing, or a scandal, we cannot accept missing a single detail. While amplified fear and excitement surrounding these events are irresistible hooks, there is a touch of conformity in the phenomenon: As members of society, there is a natural urge to be in the know — to be otherwise would expose us to ostracism. I cannot warn against such an intuitive behavior, but instead against the detrimental habits we fall into in this process. Shocking stories are plainly unimaginative; they don’t require much effort from the audience except to comprehend whatever horror has surfaced. In contrast, the spongy habit Tarantino described above requires far more energy than to be shocked by a headline. From my personal observations this past semester, I confidently write that such effort does not go unrewarded. The success of Quentin Tarantino’s plots are proof enough. His secret lies in the ability to not just “write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it — other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use.” The essays I wrote in English 1102 acknowledge this quality by exploring the depth and ideologies of Tarantino’s characters.

After a long day of classes, I exited the elevator on Brumby Hall’s fourth-floor lobby and strolled towards my dorm. A group of janitors had gathered outside of the bathroom. To get to my room, I crossed the lines of their conversation, and I heard something which delighted me in the simplest of ways: a heated debate on which cleaning products leave the best shine. As each janitor advanced their choice, I heard the playful protests of the others fill the group with genuine laughter. From a corollary of the supposed “money equals happiness” equation, I supposed most would not view the janitorial occupation as conducive of happiness. I couldn’t imagine however — in that moment — that those janitors weren’t happy if even for just a moment. Listening to their conversation, I found faith in that happiness is a pursuit more concerned with the people we surround ourselves with than the things we surround ourselves with.

I wrote my 1102 essays on two of Quentin Tarantino’s characters: Clifford Worley from True Romance and Louis Gara from Jackie Brown. Their stories relate to those of the homeless man and the janitors, except for the addition of Tarantino’s insatiable taste for violence in his plots. Where I wanted to right — beyond the violence — I found uncommon qualities in seemingly common men. Cliff Worley was just a security guard living in a trailer in the outskirts of Detroit, and Louis Gara was just a jailbird stuck in the vicious cycle of recidivism. That said, Cliff Worley was also well-read in Sicilian history, and Louis Gara demonstrated a sense of loyalty uncommon even to people more refined than him.

Admittedly, when I began the essay on Cliff Worley, I wasn’t at all interested in anything except confirming that what he said was true. I was skeptical of his character; why does a poor security guard care so much about reading, especially about Sicilian history? My skepticism led me to read more about Sicily’s history than I ever imagined I would. Had I expected more of Cliff, I don’t believe I would have left a trip to UGA’s main library one day with a stack of books on Sicily. An erudite security guard showed a gap between what was expected and what was true, which led me to further investigate exceptions of the status quo.

Regarding Louis Gara, I spent hours reading Rum Punch, the novel from which Louis Gara’s character and Jackie Brown was adapted, taking notes along the way. I replayed Jackie Brown after reading Rum Punch and rewinded Louis’s scenes over and over to really understand his character. I couldn’t part with a feeling of sorrow for a man with so much unrealized potential as he was stuck in a social paradox. His condition led me to literature in sociology, and the mechanics of conformity. I needed to understand how a man with the right skills couldn’t escape the wrong situations.

For my wild card, I have submitted the original notes from the magnifying glass and janitor stories. So much rests on those two instances as far as my development in the English 1102 course, and how my new habits will continue to affect the rest of my life. I now carry a small note book with me wherever I go, and use the Evernote application on my phone so I can record my thoughts on what I see, hear, and read everyday. This is a skill which, if wielded effectively, will ensure that each day is fascinating, and will allow me to see the narrative in all of us.