Tuesday, March 29, 2011

19 If Your Character's Missing a Shoe, Try Finding its Match

"Love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate."

~Joyce Carol Oates~

So yesterday I was driving home from work and I saw a random shoe on the side of the road. It wasn't the first time either. Maybe it's where I live or maybe I'm just weird for noticing this kind of thing, but I swear I see an orphaned shoe like every other week. Construction boots, a child's sandal, heels, sneakers, flip flops – one time I even saw a walking cast. A WALKING CAST.

Every time I come across this phenomenon, I think – what happened to the other shoe? Who drives and tosses their footwear out the window? I mean, who does that??? Is there a strange shoe cult congregating in Maryland or something?

Anyway, I swear I have a point.

And it's this – aside from a cluttered closet or a store display, there's something odd about seeing a single shoe. I mean, they're supposed to come in pairs. A right. A left. Opposites of each other.

A shoe without its partner is…unbalanced. Lacking of the other. Missing its yin (or yang). This concept of duality isn't anything new. It goes back forever: Life and Death. Black and white. Sun and moon. Good and Evil. I'm definitely not a philosopher, but when a relationship is weighted heavily to one side or you're missing a part of the pair, everything else becomes weak and insignificant to the monopoly of the one that is left over. Or something like that, right?

(Just nod your head yes and follow me a sec…)

Duality, opposites, balance, shared responsibility – conceptually, it should be present in your story one way or another. But to better illustrate what I really mean, I'm going to single out the one thematic pair that's probably the most prevalent in children's literature:

Love and Hate.

Simply stated, they cannot exist without each other. I wish this weren't so. One day, it'd be nice for Miss America to get what she's always longed for. But truth is, if we didn't have the dirty black streak of hate to spar opposite our purist of purity pure love, then we wouldn't understand love, and vice versa. It's an ever-present, ever-dipping scale.

In our stories, we need this contrast – this conflict – to build tension and provide a three-dimensional environment for our characters to play in. If you write a love story that's all LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!, it would read so sappy, Cheetos would be crying for their cheese back.

In my humble opinion, love and hate are pretty much essential flavors in a good book. And the pairing requires attention to balance and equality, my friends.

Example #1: Romeo and Juliet had this amazing, crazy kind of love, right? But in old Bill Shakes' story, there was an equally intense hatred between the Capulets and Montagues. TENSION.

Example #2: Katniss wanted to protect her family above all else—even above her own life. But her desire to protect was rivaled by her hatred for the Capitol and all the oppression it represented. CONFLICT.

Example #3: Indiana Jones loved him some adventures, didn't he? The crazier the locale, the more bad guys he had to fight—the better! So long as there weren't snakes. But if there were snakes…well, who could forget that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the pyramid full of every slithering reptile known to man? STAKES.

I don't care how old your protagonist is – five, ten, fifteen, twenty – there must be someone or something he/she loves:

Mom, Dad, brother, sister, friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, teacher, coach, movie star, pet, team, sport, hobby, car, money, school subject, book, video game, food, social status, etc…

And there must be someone or something he or she hates JUST AS MUCH.

So my tip is this: No matter how much your character favors something or someone, try giving her something equal to dislike. The more matched in significance they are in your character's mind, the more organic tension we'll see on the page as your turning points occur and your character struggles to maintain the scale of keeping everything in her life balanced.

So let's go back to that shoe I saw on the side of the road.

I don't know where the other pair is. I don't know why they were separated in the first place. But I know every time I drive that road from now on, I'm gonna be on the lookout for its match.

Tell me, what does your protagonist love? What does he or she hate? Is the degree to which your character views these things matched? How do you pit the two against each other to create tension, conflict, or stakes for your character? Should I leave all this deep thinking to philosophical scholars?


Additional Reading:

Kathy Temean highlights Donald Maas's tips for creating conflict within your character: https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/steps-to-create-a-memorable-character/

Genreality on Conflict: http://www.genreality.net/conflict

Danyelle on the QueryTracker Blog talks about villains – and really, you can't have a villain without a hero! http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2010/12/case-for-villains.html

Happy Pair-Finding!


  1. Great post! I've also seen the Katniss duality described like this - the Capitol is a big, systemic evil she is fighting. In contrast, Rue is something small and vulnerable - the opposite of a system, a small person she must protect (like her sister too)...

  2. Very wise advice. Such is REAL life, too, huh?? Yes. Conflict is what perpetuates growth, and forward movement is what readers enjoy. That doesn't mean the character's always receive what's pleasing to them, but it does add depth, meaning, and makes us think.

  3. Very interesting post, and yes, when I see a cardigan, shoe, tee-shirt in the road it always puzzles me.

  4. I've always wondered about those abandoned shoes, too :-) Great discussion here. You've helped me take another look at the level of conflict/tension/stakes I've created in my story. My MG character would like to lose her brother like an old shoe, until she almost does...

    Thanks for the links, too!

  5. Love the quote.

    And I am a sucker for a good Indiana Jones reference!


  6. Great post, gives me something to watch out for while writing. Loved that picture...so cool how they wrote hate to look like love through the mirror. I'll have to print it and post it on my reminder board, since I tend to get lost in a story and forget the details. Thanks! :D

  7. Fantastic post! I must bookmark this one. Those shoes have always puzzled me too. But, in fact, in the book I just published (The Proper Order of Things), the mean brother does throw single shoes into trees. As a girl who grew up with two older brothers, I blame them (or their friends) for shoes that end up out car windows or on telephone lines.

  8. pffffff hahahahahah "Cheetos would be crying for their cheese back."

    *steals that line*

    Great post, Cam. Very, very true. It's the same with being able to admire beauty--we wouldn't appreciate it as much if we'd never witnessed ugly. (I'm NOT talking people here, just to clarify. I mean... moments/landscapes/art/etc)

  9. What a great observation. I love the idea of opposites in a story!

  10. Great post. I think I need to think about the opposites more as I create my stories.

  11. Great post, Cam! I had to stop my reading to think about my manuscript, making sure I have this. I do, but it was not entirely intentional--not to the extent of what you are advocating--but I can totally see the value, and I am loving the result in my pages. My first manuscript didn't have enough of this and I can see and feel the difference. Also, I love your voice in this post and it makes me eager to see your author voice in your YA once it hits the shelves!

    Happy Writing!

  12. Very nice post : ) BTW "The Barenaked Ladies are neither Naked or Ladies". Discuss. I just saw Mike Meyers with that. But yes, there must be some oppositon, some reflection of dualities, or the book isn't very much fun.

  13. Great stuff here! I will have to run my novels through this sieve.

    I had to smile at some of your wording here! The "dirty black streak of hate" and the "purity pure love," as well as the Cheetos crying for their cheese back. LOL Thanks for entertaining us along with your solid info, Cam!

  14. Great post. I always marvel at the women in car commercials who romantically let their chiffon scarves fly away. I mean, are they going back for them later? And does the man in the car get annoyed at the clothing being tossed? Conflict.

    Ah, the mysteries of life.

  15. I'm sending you a HUGE virtual hug right now! I've got a shiny new idea running around in my head and this post just snapped in a big missing piece of my puzzle! Awesome!!!

    Thanks - and I have to tell you your Miss America comment had me flashing back to Miss Congeniatily! :)

  16. Thanks for all the comments everyone! Really! <3

    To be honest, I almost didn't post this because I was starting to tip over into delirium when I wrote it. Just ask Martina. I kept emailing her with, "I'm totally coming off whackadoodle on this post so please don't hate me for ruining your awesome blog and oh my God does this even make sense?"

    So I'm glad to hear so many of you are finding useful tidbits here. And feel free to steal my Cheetos cheese line any time! ;)

  17. I really needed this for my WIP but I couldn't put my finger on it. Thanks! This helps define the villain/obstacle too- If the protag's hate would be out of proportion if it equaled their love, then that's a good indicator that the villain needs to go to the next level.

  18. Cam I just love the way you turn around the oddity of a single shoe along a road into something powerful us writers can take away. Excellent post, lady. Thank you! :)


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