the mutt

Character Bombshell

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 9, 2009

Back from a rather hectic, yet fantastic trip to New Delhi and Agra. Spent more time travelling in trains, actually! At some point everybody has recommended a long train journey to someone else. The reasons have always been pretty much the same: disconnect, quiet time to think, see the countryside like you never would – and finally – meet interesting people.

I could list the rather colourful characters I met. People with a history that one would be hard pressed to equal merely by the force of imagination. This post, however, is not about that. This post is about what a person says, suddenly, that completely changes your understanding of her. It sheds new light on everything she has said before, and she will say after. In one second, that character explodes into your heart, never to leave.
mushroom cloud
It’s what I call a character bombshell. When a character says or does something suddenly, drops a nuke that completely transforms your understanding of her.

Old Man. Very old, needs support to make his bed, stand up, open food packets. All of which I gladly provide, not in a condescending way, for I have a grandfather of a similar age and I understand better what’s required of me. I consent, indicating there was never any question of having it any other way, that I would help him get off the train at the right station, and assist with his bag.

He talks about his home, where he worked, his life and so on.

He shares his food with me, insists when I refuse, nods his approval when I relent. Everything’s fine and normal. The usual. The only thing that has made me feel sad for him is that he has lost his wife. He mentions it with dignity, delicately and without maudlin.

The next morning we wait for his station to arrive. I get his bag out and keep it ready. While we wait, he starts talking again. It starts with what he’s already told me – where he worked, his age, his pension etc. And then Bombshell 1: He says, he has two sons. One of them is no more with us, left us when he was just 32. Suddenly, he breaks into a sob, his mouth curls with grief that cannot be gotten over. He tries to recover, and almost does, but another wave washes over him and his hands rush to hide his tear-filled eyes. All of a sudden, it’s no longer small talk. All of a sudden, he’s no longer just another old man in the train who likes to talk.

After a few minutes he recovers. The station is still ten minutes away. We start talking again. He tells me about the revision of his pension  and how his wife asked him not to reconsider his decision to retire although the others in his office suggested he put in a few more years. And then Bombshell 2: My wife has passed away you know – we climbed up to the temple at _________, she fell down the stairs and….

He starts to sob again. His nose is blocked and he draws his breath in gasps. He neither apologises nor attempts to hide the break in the dam he has built to contain emotions. He continues with an inane cliché that only makes my heart sag heavier with sorrow: they say, wife is life, but now … now … what is there to do … I just go on.

The station arrives and I help the old man get off. I wait till his daughter arrives to pick him up. We exchange goodbyes, he thanks me, blesses me – all in a very plain, matter-of-fact way. There was no indication of any bond between us. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that he’d made me privy to a deep and emotional part of his life.

The anecdote is not about my emotions, or his, for that matter. The anecdote is not about what he said, it’s not about the contents. It’s about how he said and when he said it. As a character, the old man and his life are still not exceptional, to be fair. But the two Bombshells he dropped suddenly changed the way I looked at him and his life. I could imagine stronger motivations for some of his beliefs. I could imagine a starker reality he confronted every morning when he awoke. He had flicked on a torch, for just a few seconds, and in that light, I saw him as he saw himself.

The old man dropped the two bombshells suddenly. If it were scripted, I would go as far as to say the author deliberately set me up by talking about inane trivialities prior to the revelation. The old man dropped the bombshell very plainly and without fanfare. Again, if it were scripted, I would say the author eschewed adverbs, adjectives and any need to adorn the statement.

And that’s what made the bombshells what they are. Unexpectedness and starkness.

While I post this anecdote from a writer’s perspective, in doing that I don’t intend to diminish the due respect and gravity it deserves. Character Bombshells (CB) embed characters in your mind like a wedge. A minor character, someone in the background, can storm her way to the main stage with a carefully timed CB. A CB is useful to jolt the reader and force him to reappraise a character. A well planned CB can make a character unforgettable.

If it works in real life, it will work in fiction too.

(If you have come across a Character Bombshell or something similar please do share it with me. Thanks.)

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