Betty and Veronica—
or how opposites attract (the reader)
by Leonora Desar
Opposites are in. This is in the tradition not only of Paula Abdul, but of film, literature, comics, TV shows. Infomercials, probably, too.
There’s Betty and Veronica (Archie). Mike and Eleven (Stranger Things). Pinky and the Brain (of Pinky and the Brain).
And my favorite “frenemy” series—which is a love-hate thing, but like, for books. I’m talking about Liz and Jess, of Sweet Valley High fame. As the intro reminds us—time and again—Liz and Jessica Wakefield are 5’6” and a perfect size six (barf). They have gorgeous blonde hair and blue eyes (double barf). But this is where the similarities end. Jess is wild. Liz, more bookish. Jess sneaks out to meet an older guy. Liz of course is going steady.
And lest you think this is a gimmick in cartoons and commercial lit alone, there’s Ferrante. In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the pattern declares itself again: there’s Lila, a literary, Italian Jess type. And then we have Lenù, who’s studious and Liz-like. This is reductionist, of course—but the archetypes hold. Lila is street smart and precocious. Lenù, timorous and introverted.
There is a reason that this works. Opposites foil each other. They intrigue the reader. They play off each other and prevent things from becoming monotone. And while Sweet Valley had a barf factor, I was hooked. As a kid, my favorite thing to do was hang out at Doubleday on gloomy Sundays at the Cross County mall, much to my frenemy Mel’s chagrin. See, she was a Jess type. She didn’t want to shop for books. She wanted to go shoe shopping. She wanted to look at the rhinestone denim jackets at Mandee’s across the way.
As writers, writing opposites is fun. It’s so much easier for most of us to empathize with the Lenù character, the Liz—but so much more awesome to write the Jess. Think of this as your escape. You can write someone more familiar, more writerly, more shy—but you also get to be your other. Your doppelgänger. You may surprise yourself. The type you don’t know may end up reading truer. By writing toward what we don’t know we dig in our unconscious, past what we know, toward what we want to know. This makes our prose impassioned and alive.
But wait, Leonora, where’s the prompt?
Here it is! Write a piece—however long you want—featuring opposites. They can be human characters or inhuman (hello, Ren & Stimpy fans). Don’t worry that you’re writing stereotypes. I mean, you are, but you’ll also be doing so much more. Lenù and Lila—and even Liz and Jess, to some extent—transcended their initial typecasting. They were nuanced: Lila was self-taught. She had incredible discipline and focus—I mean, she taught herself to read. And Lenù was impassioned. We see this in her desire, her love for Nino. She was willing to break the rules, to lie.
In your first draft, don’t worry about nuance. Just focus on creating opposites. Then, when you go back, shade in. What is one way that your characters defy type? Perhaps like Lenù, you have someone who seems to abide by all the rules, but feels jealousy intensely. Or maybe she likes to steal. Or she excels at sports. In Twins, by Marcy Dermansky, one of my favorite novels ever, we have Chloe, a good student and former model citizen. She rocks at basketball. She also looks like Barbie. This makes the sports thing counterintuitive—always a good thing in prose.
Her twin Sue is her opposite. She seems like a tomboy—she eschews makeup and the popular girls and when we meet her she wants to get tattooed, badly—but Dermansky makes a smart decision. She doesn’t give Sue basketball. When Sue finds her passion, it’s girls and banging out her memoirs.
Short pieces to get your mojo flowing:
Flash pieces are often monologues featuring one character, or greatly favoring that character. But they still often toy with doubles. Like these—
“My Mother Has Lived in a Houseboat, a Lighthouse, and a Fire Station,” by Alicia Bones. Man, this piece does so much. In one paragraph alone we have a novel’s worth of opposite-making. We learn, for instance, that Mom has lived in a houseboat (haunted), a lighthouse, and a firehouse (converted). Her daughter on the other hand needs routine.
“Alice and Larissa,” by yours truly. I am the queen (or court jester) of the monologue and seeing things one way, usually from the POV of a middle-aged woman who won’t wear matching socks. When I started writing though, things were different. I wrote my own version of Twins or Sweet Valley, but through the POV of an unborn, conjoined twin. Alice, the narrator, is a Liz. Her twin sister, Larissa, a Jess. Larissa hasn’t had her first meal yet, but she’s already planning her first make-out.
Justin Torres, “We Wanted More” (from We the Animals). This is a chapter, officially, but we can cheat here. Here, we get a glimmer of the narrator’s parents, or the opposing qualities of mother and father. Father-like qualities are density, weight, spankings, meticulousness, precision. The qualities associated with mother are “less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father.”
This is dramatized further in the chapters, “Never-Never Time,” which is mother-focused, and “Heritage,” which is father-focused. The chapters are adjacent, highlighting the contrast: the mother seems to live in outer space, on a planet without clocks, without rules, where it might be your birthday or it might be time for breakfast at 3 am. The father, on the other hand, is corporeal. When we meet him, really meet him, we see him dancing. He is physical, rooted to this Earth.
“Moth,” by Joanne Comito. The central character is “Moth, light as a feather.” Moth doesn’t abide by gravity. As the teacher prattles on, Moth does what we all wished we could have done back in our high school days: she plays hooky by floating out the window.
The other or opposing character is not limited to just one: it’s everyone—the amorphous “they” that cut into her flesh, the “invisible hands” that lock her down, the mother who is happy to see her anchored.
In a sense, this is a flip of Bones’ piece: the daughter is the free spirit, the mother, the conformist. In literature, these two types repeat time and again. The key to keeping it fresh are the specifics: sometimes it’s unusual language, like in Torres’ work, unusual living situations, like Bones’ lighthouse, or in Comito’s case, a rebellious kid who’s not just sneaking out to party—but who literally flies away.
Leonora Desar is rooted to this Earth but would like very much to go up in space. She would especially like to see the moon, which she realizes is not ambitious. Her work has appeared in River Styx, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, and in No Tokens, where she explores her love for twins.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about the writing process? Or maybe you’re curious about the submission process? Maybe you want to know why LEO never wears matching socks, why she’s obsessed with ice cream, why she never takes a normal bio pic.
Or maybe—just maybe—what you REALLY want is to get your question published in NFFR. In any case, now’s your chance. Send those questions over to email@example.com— for the chance to be answered by DEAR LEO herself, in print.
(Really Leonora, but all advice columnists seem to strictly follow the two-syllable limit: Dear Leo, Dear Abby, Dear Sugar. Plus, Leo sounds cooler. Plus plus, it’s rarely butchered and becomes “Lenore.”
Also, she wrote this in third person and now feels a little weird.)