Several years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were discussing people who lose their tempers. Since he had been a work colleague before we got together, he knew that I was capable of losing my temper. He had seen me do it several times in a work context.
So I was surprised when he said: “You don’t lose your temper. My ex-wife loses her temper. That’s why we could never have a gun in the house – or any weapon – because if there was a weapon around during one of her rages, me and the kids would be toast.”
I had met his ex-wife and had found her to be a calm, placid woman with a lively sense of humour. I overlaid this impression of her with the mental image of a female Viking in a Beserker rage, foaming at the mouth and mad-eyed as she lopped off heads to the right and left of her. It was pretty scary to think of my mild-mannered boyfriend ever facing such a creature.
“Well,” I reassured him, “I wouldn’t do that, but I do have a temper. You’ve seen me lose it.”
“No,” he said. “You don’t lose your temper. You just throw tantrums. You’re in danger of throwing one now because you don’t like what I’m saying…”
“I do NOT throw tantrums,” I said, gearing up for a mini-Beserker rage of my own. “I lose my temper.”
“No,” he insisted. “You throw tantrums. You do it for the effect it causes. It makes people think that you are losing your temper, so they give in to you. But it’s really a tantrum, because you know exactly what effect it will have and that’s why you do it. You can stop it anytime you want to. My ex-wife can’t – that’s the difference between you.”
I thought about this as I stopped my potential outburst. He was right, of course. He smiled knowingly.
“Don’t get smug about it,” I warned him. “There’s a first time for everything.”
His smile broadened. “Not you. You’d never allow yourself to completely lose control, would you? That’s why I love you.”
Good answer. Damn, it’s annoying when someone knows you better than you do yourself!
I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately, and the limits they reach before they lose it completely. So this remembered conversation brings up just another question to ask myself when creating a character: what pushes this character’s buttons to the point where he loses his temper? Or does he actually lose it? Is he always in control below the surface and just doing it for the effect? Channelling a pent-up release of energy in the most cost-effective direction?
Looking back in my novels, I have tried to find that trigger point. In my first ever novel, based on my family’s history, the father in the family is pushed to those limits and a chance remark from his eldest son pushes him over the edge to the point where the father aims his gun at his son. The first-born is not about to take this calmly either, so they grapple for the gun and both fall to the ground where the gun goes off. The mother, hearing it from inside the house, rushes outside and grabs the gun from the two shocked combatants. Both men disappear in different directions, shamefaced at their behaviour.
Obviously this was a tantrum, because no one was foaming at the mouth and the shock of the shot going off stopped them both from actually killing…
In case you think this is a bad melodrama that never saw the light of day (well, actually it was badly written and consequently never got published), let me hasten to assure you that this actually happened in my family. Yes, it does beg some questions about volatile rednecks who take up arms against their own offspring, doesn’t it? When I first read that bit in a local historical archive, I was terribly embarrassed by it.
But I have to admit that this single event got me thinking more than anything else had about my great-great-grandfather’s character. In my search for what might have pissed him off, the only thing I came across was that his farm was not doing terribly well. Some years before – in 1880 – he had brought his family all the way from Manchester to South Africa as part of the Willowfountain settler scheme; a scheme that failed spectacularly and ended in misery for most of the settler farmers. Those who couldn’t make the payments on their stony little plots of land packed up and relocated to the nearest town because they couldn’t afford the fare back “home” to England.
Why did he snap at his eldest son? Perhaps the youth had been against the move from England all along and a snide remark from him was the final straw to the father who knew that his son had been right. And in that moment I had the two most important things that characters need in a novel: Something that they desire above all else, and conflict when they are denied what they want.
It remains to be seen whether or not I will ever rewrite this novel into something halfway decent, but in the meantime it’s good to know that my intentions were on track when I found that first spark which initiated it.