Once upon a time, I got into a pretty heated discussion with my MFA thesis adviser — my writing mentor at the time — about the use of product names in an early novel. I had a character in a scene take a Heineken beer from the fridge and, using a bottle opener, pop the top. My mentor said “Why have him drinking that kind of beer? It’s just a beer, so say it, ‘He grabbed a beer.’ ”
The comment made no sense to me, so I asked my own question. “What kind of beer do you drink?” He said, “Whatever’s on tap at the tavern.” “Okay, but what kind of beer do you buy at the store to take home for that ‘Sunday-in-front-of-the-tv’ drink?” “Whatever’s on sale at the liquor store,” he told me. I realized I could be knocking my head against the wall for awhile here, but there was an opening that I saw.
“Listen,” I said, “you buy discount beer, and that’s fine. But this guy drinks a high-cost foreign brew, with a different taste than ‘what’s on sale.’ The character is a discriminating drinker, and Strohs or Budweiser or LaBatt’s is not his brand of beer. And what kind of beer you drink, or don’t drink, or shy away from, or have a taste for, or even puke on from one sip, always says something about you. This is about character, and taste, having taste in beer that is different from the corner tavern or the hole-in-the-wall liquor store.”
“My tavern has Heineken for sale,” the mentor claimed. “It’s in the cooler, behind glass. You just have to ask for it.”
“So why don’t you ask for it?”
He said, “Because I don’t like Heineken. It tastes and smells like skunk piss.”
“Exactly!” I exclaimed.
If you have a character walk into a store and ask the cashier, “I’ll have a sixer of Schlitz, that party bag of Lay’s chips … and, oh yeah, how about a copy of Hustler, too?” … you kind of know you’re not dealing with a Yaley from Newport Beach. Not that a refined taste can be found in every Yaley, or that Schlitz and Lay’s can’t be considered refined in and of themselves (when compared to, I suppose, an Old Milwaukee from the can and a bag of month-old Funions).
Taste matters to character, and to story. Lilly Bart, in Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”, grew up with refined tastes. Perhaps too refined — in clothes, holiday hot-spots, wine and food, and men — all to her own devastation, in the end. Jay Gatsby threw lavish parties featuring gourmet meals, champagne by the fountainful, and everyone wore evening jackets or dresses (he would not have drawn Daisy’s attention without such ostentatious displays of wealth). In S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, the boys were happy when they got soda and chips, and they smelled their clothes before deciding which emitted the least B.O. before putting them on for the day.
Style and taste represent choices by the characters that tell who they are, and go far in determining what their motivation might be. These were also carefully planned by the authors who drew them. We writers make choices — to our success or perdition — every time we place a bottle of something in a character’s hand, put her in a particular car, travel to a destination, sleep with another man’s wife. Without careful consideration to its result, and its effect on the reader, the story and/or character lack focus.
A writer must also see the big picture here. Understanding who all his characters are helps him see patterns in the dramatis personae, and through them, then too the arc of the story, and how that can unfold in such a way as to make the impact of the drama that much more powerful. This is because how a person acts, and what a person acts with, makes an effect on the reader, often so deeply that readers come to know this “character” as a real person; perhaps someone they would like to meet, or someone they would never want to meet, or someone whom they already know in the real world.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.