The Bizarro Rule

I’ve been reading posts in various writer’s forums in which the question of how to create conflict comes up. With that in the back of my mind, I had an idea while reading this The New York Times article Help, I’m Surrounded by Jerks by Stephanie Rosenbloom. It examines a number of books meant to help us through our days dealing with cantankerous, crumudgeonly, crotchety cretins. In short: the people who make our lives miserable. As I read it I found that, aside from their primary purpose as a guide on how to make it through life without killing someone like the office-gossip, these books could offer an interesting roadmap on character traits and possibly an insight into how and why characters are the way they are. Some of the descriptions found in the books could be a recipe for character creation.
For example:
… [E]veryone knows at least one person who can set the blood boiling. They can be found in corporate offices, on co-op boards, in church choirs and on university faculties. They are the office Cassandra who predicts doom for every project her team initiates, the intimidating boss for whom nothing is ever good enough and the unreasonable receptionist at the motor vehicles office.
…For Ann Rothman, a Manhattan real estate agent, her difficult person is a know-it-all friend who simply cannot be pleased.
“She’s a superior human being, and she comes from a superior area — Berkeley, Calif.,” Ms. Rothman said. “She has told me many times that there are only two places to get good food. One of them is Berkeley, and one of them is France. And France is only second to Berkeley.”

Notice that this is a FRIEND she’s talking about?
…[Some] say that rather than seeing the office curmudgeon or the post office nitpicker as the sum of their most wretched behavior, it is better to think of them as full people, even to empathize with them, if only to maintain some sense of control.
Easier said than done. But psychologists say people exhibit difficult behavior because they have a need that is not being met. Understanding that need — a colleague may be snappish, for instance, because his personal life is in turmoil — helps take the sting out of his or her actions, they say.

That’s the sort of complexity I’m suggesting. You many not need to tell your reader’s explicity what the unmet need is, but maybe your knowing will help the depth of the character.
“Some people really are bad people,” said Mark I. Rosen, a social scientist at Brandeis… “but I don’t think the percentage is as high as people think it is.” Instead, he said, “most people fall into the category of incompetent or oblivious.”
Several authors think it is useful to characterize infuriating people into types and prescribe ways to deal with them, as Robert M. Bramson did in 1981 in “Coping With Difficult People,” one of the first popular books on the topic. Its overarching lesson is to find a way to communicate with these people because they are not going away. Dr. Bramson lists seven difficult behavior types: Hostile-Aggressives, Complainers, Silent and Unresponsives, Super-Agreeables, Know-It-All Experts, Negativists and Indecisives.

This list of categories is, I think, a nice starting point if you’re stuck on how to deepen a secondary character in a scene that’s a little flat.
…“How many mother-in-law stories have you heard?” he asked. “It’s not disproportionate in the workplace, but often what it is, is that the stakes are so big for people. Career is at the center of people’s lives.”
Workplaces are competitive environments comprising individuals with disparate styles of working and communicating. With so many temperaments thrown together, every office is a powder keg.
For instance, there are those who think they are powerless, that their ideas go unheard or are dismissed and who believe they are not valued, feelings that can turn into chronically difficult behavior.

On top of character creation, the books may give a nice set of tools for creating conflict in your fiction. To use them for conflict creation I think you’d have to use the Bizarro Rule. In other words, have your characters do the opposite of the suggested techniques of diffusing a troublesome encounter.
For instance, the article says, “The lessons include common sense (talk it out and put yourself in their shoes), character by character tactical road maps and something that the victims of the difficult don’t want to hear: they might be the problem.”
I think that doing exactly the opposite would create a strong dynamic in a scene. For example, how might the following be used, following the Bizzaro Rule, to create a good scene where the main character does the opposite of the defusing suggestions:

These authors say that after categorizing the difficult behavior, you can take steps to rein it in. For example, Dr. Rick Brinkman, a seminar leader and an author of “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst,” calls one category Whiners. These people rattle off an endless loop of complaints and must be coaxed into problem solving.
He suggests listening to them and letting them vent. Chances are, he said, their complaints will be vague and exaggerated. When they begin to repeat their gripes, summarize for them what they have said. Then begin asking specific questions.
“You have to keep asking them what they think they should do,” Dr. Brinkman said, to press for resolutions. You might finally say something outrageous, like “What if we were to kill everyone in the other department?”

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