Using Fence Post Characters

fortitude My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.

I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system.  Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.

You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.

I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns duela motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.

Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.

30 thoughts on “Using Fence Post Characters

  1. I like this, Joe. Makes we tempted to try it on an already finished novel just to see how it would change.

    Have a pleasant day, my fine friend.

    • Aw Jordan, if you’re finished and (reasonably) happy with it don’t change a thing! Save it for your next one! And you have a pleasant weekend as well!

  2. I think I’ve done this. Not really sure. If I have, it was pure luck.

    Mabel was born into a crime family. Escapes as a teenager. Fifteen years later the skills she learned during her youth come in handy when dead bodies show up in her barn. So, I guess the question is, was she in her element during her youth and then taken out of it when she and her brother attempted to go straight? If that’s the case then I did the reverse of what you suggested.

    Rats. But then again, the family business has changed quite a bit in the last fifteen years, so…she’s kind of in and out of her element.

    Okay, now I’m just making the round peg fit the square hole.

    • Amanda, a friend of mine in the construction business tells me that he makes round pegs fit into square holes all of the time. He just sometimes needs dynamite and a sledge hammer to do it. If the reverse or even sideways works for you, go for it!!! Thanks!

  3. DUEL is a masterpiece in both print and film. It was a TV movie, and I remember watching it when it first aired. It was absolutely riveting: the unseen monster, the dark world into which the “ordinary man” is thrust. Reminds me of a similar movie I really like, BREAKDOWN with Kurt Russell.

    • Jim, the two scenes from the movie which stay with me are 1) when the trucker tries to run Mann down at the gas station, hits the outdoor aquarium, and Mann winds up with the tarantula on his leg. That’s soooo special; and 2) when Mann is in the restroom stall and sees those boots under to door. Talk about helpless. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Nice post, Joe. Like Jim, I remember DUEL and I too saw it during its first airing on TV. The character Mann was just that: every man. We could all relate to him. And whenever it seemed that things could get no worse, they did. I also remember the antagonist: the truck. Even though I knew someone was driving it, you never saw the driver and started feeling the truck had a mind of its own.

    The protagonists my co-author and I develop are smart and resourceful women. But like you describe, we still keep throwing unforeseen roadblocks in their way. I believe that’s the best method to let the reader see their true nature. At any given moment in the story, we ask “Now what can go wrong?” And then we make it happen. We try to predict what the reader will anticipate, then we give them something they never saw coming.

    • Thank you Joe, for the compliment and for enlarging on the post. What you said about the truck was interesting; at one point during the film I wondered, albeit momentarily, if anyone was driving before dismissing the thought. Then, several years later, I saw Maximum Overdrive…

  5. I remember DUEL from its first airing on ABC~ still a favorite as made-for-TV moviws go…
    As for “fish-out-of-water”, I have to go back to NORTHERN EXPOSURE~ not a thriller, mind you, but… Currently, there’s DEATH IN PARADISE on PBS~ auit wearing British inspector in the Carribean world od shorts, ugly shirts, and” island time”…

  6. I vividly recall the TV movie “Duel,” but was not aware it was an early Spielberg work. I remember watching it with my mother, who kept saying, “That crazy truck driver is trying to kill Chester!” (Dennis Weaver’s character from Gunsmoke)

    And to answer Joe’s question about whether I’ve tried putting characters on a fence post, I have indeed. In my flash fiction story Cameron Obscura, an autistic savant rappels into a deserted well to keep a promise to his dying father. Judging by readers’ comments, the story worked.

    • Mike, I’m howling over your Mom’s comment. Thanks for sharing. Interestingly enough, it also reminded me of another of Weaver’s fence post roles, if you will, that being McCloud, which featured a modern western lawman in New York. Talk about your novelty.
      Re: Camera Obscura…I will DEFINITELY have to read that. I wanted to ask how you ever thought of a scenario like that, but I won’t. I don’t want to know. I’d rather keep it magic.

      • Seems I’d let McCloud slip my mind…

        I’d add the Robert Redford character in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR~ bookish CIA analyst who finds his co-workers exexuted and doesn’t know who did it or why~ let alone who to trust while trying to solve – and survive – (I think it was from a book by a similar, but different numbered, title~ 6 DAYS OF THE CONDOR?)


        • G., that’s another great example, definitely (I particularly love the scene where Joe Turner comes bebopping back into the nondescript office and sees the carnage that has taken place. And you’re 100% right on the title of the original novel by James Grady. A tip of the fedora And here is another…MARATHON MAN by William Goldman, the novel and the movie. Could there ever be a less likely hero than Babe?!

  7. Love this. I haven’t tried this in my own work, but now you’ve got me thinking about coming up with fence post characters for my own fiction. I can think of three examples of fish out of water characters in film I’ve loved:

    Archie the Barrister from “A Fish Called Wanda” who finds himself emeshed in the aftermath of a diamond heist.

    Jack Burton the truck driving hero in “Big Trouble in Little China” who finds himself in the middle of a sorcerous plot to revive an ancient evil, his “sidekick,” a very capable Chinese-American martial artist has insight into the culture and legend which Burton is utterly ignorant of.

    Finally, one of my all time favorite films, “The Big Lebowski,” features a fantastic fence post character in aging hippie slacker Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who goes on a quest to recover his stolen rug and finds himself embroiled in a bizarre (and hilarious, darkly funny) mystery. The Dude just wants his rug back and a White Russian. His mellow attitude is put to the test as he struggles to solve an increasingly convoluted mystery. His pal Walter Sobchek, who sees everything through his (alleged) Vietnam veteran mindset, is also a fence post despite believing himself in the know. The juxtaposition of the ultra laid back and supremely lazy Dude who really wants to focus on winning an upcoming bowling tourmanent with criminal goings-on is brilliant, in my book at any rate.

    Thanks for a very thought-proving post!

    • Dale, thank you for your kind words and your excellent examples, particularly Jack Burton. I loved Big Trouble in Little China, particularly for its concept, but the unique characters were of equal value. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Excellent post, Joe. My sister Kelly and I were having just this sort of conversation the other day because she has an idea for a story but was struggling to inject enough tension into the plot. We realized she needed her protag to be more “against type” so her journey could have more of an arc.

    Our own series character Louis Kincaid is somewhat of a fish out of water because he is biracial. We created him this way so he is constantly feeling the forces of being caught between two worlds. It isn’t something we usually address head-on with the plot but this struggle is always there just below the surface of whatever he does.

    Our stand alone thriller “A Killing Song” is a true turtle-on-post story. A Miami newspaper reporter (whose profession is slowly dying) is driven to find the killer of his kid sister. His journey takes him not only into the role of investigator but also to Paris, where he can’t speak the language, has no allies, and is up against a legal system that is totally foreign. It was fun to write!

    • Thank you for the kind words, Kris. Louis Kincaid is VERY much a fence post/fish out of water character, particularly, I think, when he’s in Florida in the West Palm Beach area. It’s one of the (many) things that draws me to the series. I’m looking forward to the next book as are I’m sure many others!

  9. Good afternoon, Joe. Great post.

    I haven’t used any fence posts characters in the sense that you define them. I have used a recurring character that is out of her element culturally. I’ll have to look for ways to make her “have little or no idea how she got where she is.”

    This sounds like a great way to amp up the stakes and create reader concern for the character. We all want the underdog to win.

    Thanks for a great post.

  10. And good afternoon to you, Steve! Thanks so much for your comments and for stopping by again. That’s a great point about the underdog. Certainly that’s the much larger category under which our fence post character rests. Or, I guess, sits :-). Thanks again!

  11. Your post gave me a new angle to think about for one of my historicals. My male lead starts out his story as a fencepost character (a doctor and a literal gold seeker), but a personal tragedy thrusts him into a new unanticipated career commanding an army regiment, which he gradually becomes quite skilled at. But you’ve raised the thought in my mind–have I let the character have TOO seamless of a transition from fencepost to comfortable even though it occurs over a period of years? He’s got to be skilled enough to not get kicked out of the army until he achieves his purposes, but I think I’m going to re-examine him. I think I’ve missed some tension opportunities by letting him adapt a little too well to his new environment.

    • Thanks BK. Be sure to circle back and let us know when we can see the results. It sounds interesting!

  12. In my WIP, one of the characters is Torrey, a 19-year-old girl who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome…this has made her marginally intelligent, i.e., she really doesn’t get the relationship between cause and effect. She happens to be patterned after my sister’s adopted boy, so both he (to a limited extent) and my sister will be vetting her characterization for me.

    She overhears part of a conversation between her adored grandmother and one of the conspirators from my first novel, and thinks she can make her grandmother happy if she kills a particular pedophile…and trouble ensues.

    In essence, Torrey is out of her (a normal person’s) element during her entire life, so maybe she doesn’t fit the definition.

    Still debating whether I’ll use first person POV (the grandmother) or third person multiple so that I can get into Torrey’s head. I’m practising first person with a couple of short stories to see if I’m up to the challenge, but it means re-plotting the novel. Plus, the first novel in the series uses third-person multiple…if I get any readers (!!!), they may expect the same POV.

    • Sheryl, this sounds like a fascinating concept. I think from your description that Torrey fits the definition just fine, but…she doesn’t really need to. I would LOVE to read this when it’s published. As far as using third person multiple goes…speaking as an older reader, that’s fine, though it works best for me if the author notes the shift in character when it takes place, with something as simple as noting it in the chapter heading (“Steve”/”Grace”/ etc.). Good luck with what sounds like a very, very interesting novel and series.

  13. This post (no pun intended) injects new perspective on my first book, which will also be helpful as I begin the sequel. My characters go through a portal in the woods on the family farm and become involved with fantastical creatures trying to prevent a war. Language barriers keep one of the characters always on the fringe increasing her discomfort and fear of the unknown.

    Even the memory of “Duel” still gives me goosebumps. Would the “Old Man and the Sea” be considered a fence post character?

    • Julie, as someone who feels as if they drop through a rabbit hole on a daily basis, your first book sounds like something I’d like to read. Let us know when it’s published.

      Re: Santiago…I was originally going to answer your question in the negative, due to his years of fishing and thus his familiarity with the environment, until I considered that…he was no longer the same man that he had been, for better or worse, and thus facing a world that is familiar but still very different in terms of his perception. You make a great point. Thanks!

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