According to reviewers my novels and screenplays are fun to read because I write good characters. Great characters can carry a good story. Lousy ones can’t.
One key to writing good characters is that I meet and know a lot of people, which helps because all of us have quirks that we easily recognize in ourselves and others.
Whenever I craft a new character I relive memories of friends and connections; it never takes long for something unique to jump out. I love incorporating real people quirks into imaginary characters and turning those characters loose to create whatever mayhem they’re up for.
One of the great behavioral contrasts I deal with in corporate life as well as the creative process is what’s called “the reflexive loop.” The reflexive loop is a very predictable set of behaviors, lenses, and filters that people habitually replicate. It’s why bigots remain bigots, tightwads remain tightwads, and slobs remain slobs.
It’s also why some people are robotic creatures of habit. I worked with one of those guys and over time his ironclad insistence on sameness drove my pal Norton and me nuts. I was reminded of this during a recent phone call where I reconnected with Norton and reminisced about the old days, when both of us were early in sales careers. Norton brought up Emo, the reflexive looper.
We rehashed Emo’s eccentricities, one quirk after the next. Twenty years later we still remember them.
Emo had two quirks that drove me nuts. One was that he exemplified life on the reflexive loop, sort of like Bill Murray’s egocentric TV weatherman character Phil Connors in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Phil Connors hated covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, but woke up each morning repeating that same day over and over again. His life was trapped on the reflexive loop.
Emo lived that way, too. The difference between Emo and Phil Connors is that Emo owned five ties. On Monday he wore his Monday tie (green), Tuesday his Tuesday tie (blue). If it’s red, it must be Friday. If it’s silver it must be Thursday. Got the picture? Every tie had its day, week after week after week.
Each day Emo drove the same old car the exact same route to work and home again. He arrived and left at the same time and parked in the same spot. But what really drove Norton and me nuts was going with him to lunch. He went to Wendy’s every single day, rain or shine, and ate the exact same meal—a salad and iced tea. This guy wasn’t just trapped on the reflexive loop—he was welded to it.
Eventually, of course, his wife cried “Uncle!” and took off, taking the kids with her. Emo was left alone, an old man well before his fortieth birthday.
Emo’s other quirk that grated like chalkboard fingernails was his greatest sales strength: He was a master at getting other people to do his work. With a smile and proffered admission that everyone was better than he, he’d ask him or her to do some of his work so he could “learn.” He never learned, nor did he want to. He danced away from every taxing thing about his job except the pay window.
One day I got fed up with his shenanigans and called him out.
“Emo,” I said, “you’re the best I’ve ever seen at giving others the opportunity to do your work.”
“Why thank you,” he said. “You’re so great with words. Say, I’ve got a customer coming in today. Would you mind explaining the new machine to them? You’re so much better than I.”
I didn’t strangle him but did the next best thing. When he was downstairs with his customer I rearranged everything in his cubicle. Emo was a man of order. Mix things up and he panicked like a roach when the lights come on.
My buddy Norton liked to bug Emo too. Norton put Vaseline in Emo’s telephone earpiece and superglued the receiver buttons down so the phone would never connect and always keep ringing. Then Norton would dial his extension. Emo would answer the phone and keep saying “Hello” but it just kept ringing. There was never a connection. Plus he got an earful of grease.
The reflexive loop is a boring way to live and not good when you sell for a living, especially in the complex sale environment where each potential deal has a unique set of decision makers, influencers, and variables.
When your mind is open and flexible, you will assess different scenarios more effectively than someone who sees everything the exact same way. I’m such a fanatic about avoiding the reflexive loop I don’t shave the same way, get ready in the morning the same way, or even shovel snow off the drive the same way. I also own a couple hundred neckties to serve as anti-Emo insurance.
Avoiding the reflexive loop is a choice, a discipline that keeps us sharp, aware, and young at heart.
But if you are too ingrained a creature of habit, and insist on living in a reflexive loop, stay ever vigilant for a lonely guy at lunchtime in Wendy’s who’s eating a salad and sipping tea. If it’s a Monday he’ll be wearing a very old white shirt (with a frayed neck) and well-worn green tie.
And if there’s petroleum jelly on his ear, stop and teach him why.
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