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The Secret Life Of Plants
By James Marck
February, 2006, 19:24

Creating dialogue using stereotypes is one way to invent real characters.
et's assume you've got a comic novel, a humourous short story or a stage/screenplay for an absurd comedy percolating away.

It requires a protagonist born of humble circumstances.

He is, though, possessed of a hero's steely resolve, a clear head, a sharp mind, plus the sinew and easy grace of a woodland beast. How do you put this creature on the page/stage?

Where does he languish while the fates conspire to thrust him into some exotic circumstance that will put his mettle to the test and ultimately bind him into the arms of the woman he deserves?

Suppose this noble slob has had no choice but to rise from the slagheap of a humble manufactory — after all, his dad was a waitress in Cleveland and his mom a trucker in South America. What's he gonna be, a sea captain? A computer nerd? Nope, this guy works in a plant.

Maybe he can do for factories what Robert DiNiro and Mel Gibson did for driving a cab. Besides, they can be a primordial soup of intrigue: unscrupulous owners, ghastly murders disguised as ghastly accidents, a peripheral criminal element on hand and, in the wings, as many shady government contracts as there are shady governments — the possibilities are endless!

All your boy has to do is stumble across something catalytic and the rest is a breeze — he's off on an adventure that can lead anywhere.

So, you know next to nothing about heavy manufacture work? Easy. Some very basic research will spell out how and why things get made — heck, there’s even a TV show (promising to escort you through the ''employees only'' entrance) that takes you into the manufacturing process from start to finish. 

But you writers’ll want dialogue, inside dope, believable characters — the real deal. You’ll want to talk the talk. So are you going to drop everything and try to find a nice 'n' greasy industrial job to get the scoop? Not recommended — and it's actually harder than you think to get through those grime-smeared doors.

What you need is some expert insight from a guy who has actually been there — time and time again.

And here it is. First, foremost, your protog works in a plant. Factories are where girls work, making things like cookies and blue jeans, wall clocks and wood flooring. Factories are clean, orderly and full of malicous gossip with machines run by computers and attendants who daub up the oil they occasionally dribble.

Sure, factories have big processing units that take up a lot of floor space and make some noise. But down at the plant (your guy's plant is the plant and never a plant — as in, ''My boyfriend works down at the plant... ) ear protection must be worn, it's dirty, chaotic and it stinks.

The plant is not simply a culture, not a way of life, but life itself. The plant rewards its guys with enough money and self-respect that it defines them and comforts them when the outside world gets too confusing.

Guys (not necessarily your guy) get hooked and even after they officially retire, will often show up with coffee at break to yammer about how, 10 years ago, so-and-so lost a finger or disabled a machine so profoundly it was down for two full shifts while they had to get the college perfessers in to fix the bloody thing.

Okay. Cliché? You bet. And there's more. Stereotypes are guaranteed effective because they exist. In one form or another, take it from me, bigotry makes up the secret life of plants and humans alike.

Makes good dialogue, too.IN Icon

James Marck is a Toronto, Canada freelance writer. Email James Marck

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