Today’s headlines on my iPhone are full of instant solutions: one sentence that can save an imploding relationship, another sentence that when added to emails will give you hours and hours of free time. Not to mention the usual promises of instant wealth: five secrets to vast riches in one headline, a single secret to late-life wealth in another.
Alas, as the more meaty news stories about the war in Ukraine and yet more obstruction at home reveal, instant solutions are the stuff of fiction, not real news.
But I write fiction and I have to say, instant solutions don’t really work in fictional worlds either.
You can’t hold onto your readers or viewers if, every time a character faces a setback, they can just pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat and make everything better. Stories should not only reflect but illuminate, our lives. Good fiction inspires, foretells, warns, and uplifts.
So there’s no instant tricks to writing great characters, either.
Except…. Another story circulating in the news this week does in fact reveal a wonderful little trick to deal with tense situations and enliven dialog—all the while deepening readers’ affection for your protagonist.
And the secret is… Drumroll… To give your leading character an unflappable, wry sense of humor by which they turn confrontations and awkward moments into opportunities to have a little harmless fun and defuse the situation. Much better than taking offense or harboring resentments— as so many of our prominent politicians prefer to do.
My example is none other than the recently departed Queen of England. The Queen is dead, long live the Queen’s humor! One can only hope to write scenes as witty as hers often were.
Take this wonderful anecdote retold in Reuters news service:
The monarch was out in the hills near her Scottish castle at Balmoral when two U.S. tourists on a walking holiday approached and one of them engaged her in conversation, said former royal protection officer Richard Griffin, known as Dick. The hiker asked the queen where she lived, so she said London, adding that she had a holiday home just over the hill and had been visiting the area for more than 80 years since she was a little girl. She did not say she was referring to Balmoral.
Aware that the castle was in the vicinity, the hiker then asked her if she had ever met the queen, Griffin said.
“Quick as a flash she said: ‘I haven’t, but Dick here meets her regularly’,” Griffin recounted.
The hiker then asked Griffin what the monarch was like in person.
“I said ‘oh, she can be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humor’,” Griffin said.
Delighted, the hiker then put his arm around Griffin’s shoulder and asked if he could have a picture of the two of them together.
“Before I could see what was happening, he gets his camera and gives it to the queen and says ‘can you take a picture of us?’”
The queen obliged, and then Griffin took the camera and took a picture of her with the pair of hikers.
Later, Griffin said, the queen told him: “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows those photographs to friends in America and someone tells him who I am.” (Reuters Staff, Sept. 8)
Another awkward moment occurred when she was hosted by President George W. Bush in 2007, as recounted by USA Today:
“The American people are proud to welcome your majesty back to the United States, a nation you’ve come to know very well,” he said. “After all, you’ve dined with 10 U.S. presidents. You’ve helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17…” Realizing his blunder, he quickly corrected himself. “In 1976,” he said.
The damage was already done. Bush awkwardly glanced over at the queen, who didn’t seem amused. “She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child,” he said as the crowd roared.
But the queen had the last laugh. At a formal dinner at the British ambassador’s residence later that night, the queen made fun of Bush’s blunder during her formal toast to the president. Grinning, she joked, “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, 'When I was here in 1776...'" (USA Today, Sept. 10.)
Scenes like these reflect a rare combination of humorous intelligence and poise. I’d like to think we writers can take inspiration from such moments and try to imbue some of our characters with wit and a sense of forgiveness, qualities that seem sadly lacking in the news, and the nation, today.
Alex Hiam, the author of Silent Lee and the Side Door Key, teaches creative writing and writes fantasy adventure stories for teens and tweens from his home in the Brattleboro area of Vermont. Available through your local bookstore or Amazon.