Happy Valentine’s Day! …or: Ten Ways to Embarrass Your Characters

First: Happy Valentine’s Day! V-day happens to be my birthday…
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Photo courtesy of terra in Virginia from Flickr Commons

…and it started me thinking. About how EMBARRASSING it was (when I was a teen and EVERYTHING my parents did was embarrassing) when my parents revealed my birthday.
Invariably, someone would say, “A Valentine Baby! How sweet!” And I would blush the same shade as all those frilly red hearts that seemed to decorate the WHOLE world for the SOLE PURPOSE OF EMBARRASSING ME.

Ahem.

Now that I’m older and much more mature, I can’t help thinking of ways I can use this memory to torture…I mean, breathe life into…my characters. I write about teens and pre-teens. And, in my experience, teens and pre-teens in the 21st century are just as prone to embarrassment as I was. Because, as every good writer knows, the more trouble you can cause your character, the more interesting the tale becomes.

Ten Ways to Embarrass Your Character

  1. 3921970684_5eac526cfd_zFamily. Think of nose-picking little brothers, older sisters who dress too provocatively, older sisters who dress too tamely, parents who drink, parents who wear matching holiday-themed sweaters…even the things we love most about our family can embarrass us. *
  2. Likes. What happens when your character is an anime freak—and anime is considered the most uncool interest in the entire school? And someone your character cares about discovers her anime interest? Perhaps your character loves chess but wants to join the popular crowd…or vice versa. At an age when conformity is paramount (even non-conformists tend to be non-conformist together), it’s hard to admit to an unpopular opinion.
  3. Dislikes. As with #2, it can be tough to be the odd one out—the kid who hates rock music or P.E. or the current to-die-for boy on the basketball team. Is there anything your character dislikes that he would hate to have discovered?
  4. Gender-bending interests. Perhaps your male character adores the art of flower arrangement or your female protagonist likes to ride dirt bikes. Thankfully, gender roles have blurred enough that this isn’t such a big deal today as it would have been…but don’t underestimate the power of being different, even in a seemingly small way.
  5. Friends. The universal struggle: a friend who’s too gabby, too quiet, too nerdy, too…whatever. When a friend embarrasses your protagonist, conflict ensues. Conflict=story=good.** 2606160921_e1e298611d_z
  6. Weaknesses. Why is it that humans think we’re the only ones with weaknesses? Weaknesses hidden keep us isolated—and often misinterpreted. Think of the misunderstandings that can result when a child refuses sleepover invitations because he’s embarrassed about his medication regimen; or when a teen refuses to eat lunch with her classmates because she’s embarrassed about her weight.
  7. Strengths. I guess it’s that conformity thing again: a lot of teens (and pre-teens and even adults) are embarrassed to reveal that they’re great at math, writing, music. Sometimes it’s because they think their talent isn’t cool. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t want to stand out. Your character’s strength can be both a gift and a burden.
  8. Background/knowledge (or lack thereof). You probably know the embarrassment of using the wrong fork at a fancy dinner—but this sort of embarrassment comes into play whenever a character enters a new situation. Does your character face an unfamiliar culture? Unfamiliar social class? Unfamiliar sport? Think of Stephen King’s Carrie blotting her lipstick with a tampon: that one character trait sticks with me 20+ years after I read the book because it made me sympathize with her and pity her even as it made me shudder.
  9. An “out-of-character” character trait. For your tough girl, this might be a soft side. For your straight-A cheerleader, a hidden flaw. Break stereotypes by giving your character unexpected dimensions.
  10. Fears. People don’t like to admit they’re afraid—especially if they’re afraid of something they don’t think they should fear. For whatever weird social reason, it’s perfectly acceptable for a female to fear a cute, harmless mouse…but not, say, learning to drive a car. Go figure.***

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Have a fantabulous day of love—and may you find many ways to embarrass all the characters you write!
:-) Cheryl
*Photos courtesy of *limaoscarjuliet, **theogo, and ***Dano on Flickr Commons.

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know - www.cherylreif.com

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]

Comments

  1. Patrick says

    Oh my gosh, happy birthday! I can imagine it was embarrassing to have that pointed out, but imagine if the date had a different significance, if you had been conceived on that date and your parents chose to share that with people! Ick! :)

    Hope you're having a great day, Cheryl.

  2. Joleene Naylor says

    A fun list! I remember being a teen – everything was embarrassing, LOL!

    When I was in highschool my friends and I would embarrass one another on their birthdays. It was an event that took lots or preparation, sometimes. I remember for my 16th birthday they write a poem about how I would have a driver's license now, but was a bad driver, wrote it out on neon pink and green paper and taped it down the front of my locker.

  3. Jill Kemerer says

    I have so much experience with embarassment that writing it into scenes comes naturally! Very nice list!

  4. Cheryl Reif says

    Patrick: yeah, that would have gone over well! My parents claim that I informed them, as a teen, that I didn't think they did "that" anymore. Ha! Of course, I don't remember any such thing….

    Joleene: I love it! Lockers are a big way that kids interact at school–I need to remember this one as I write :)

    Jill: too funny–it sounds like you have some stories to share!

  5. P.I. Barrington says

    I wasn't sure what this list would entail–but was happily surprised! Great list Cheryl!

  6. Cheryl Reif says

    Glad you weren't disappointed :)

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