Recently, a cab driver was driving me home from the airport. After hearing I’d just come from Dallas, he gazed in the mirror back at me and loudly and, completely unsolicited, declared: “Everywhere you’ve been, darling, I’ve been. Everything you’ve done in life, I’ve done it too, six times over.” Rather than challenge his claim, I simply asked him the natural next question: “So then, what’s the secret?”
He hesitated for a moment and then began talking about money.
I don’t like thinking about money as motivation, in writing or in life. In writing it can feel too easy. But of course… she was sleeping with him for his money. And he killed him for the inheritance. They stayed in the dangerous haunted house because they couldn’t afford to move. In life, thinking about money feels like a shackle. Once I finally earned enough to add the brand name cookies to my grocery cart without taking something else out, I didn’t look back. Now my checkbook gets balanced once a week instead of daily and I don’t sweat what friends order when we are splitting the check. For the granddaughter of two immigrants, an orphan, and a Boston firefighter who raised 8 kids that sure feels like freedom.
But of course the cabbie is right. Money matters. Money motivates. Look back at our world’s history. monarchs go to war, exile family members, and choose their spouses for wealth. Nations choose allies that they can sell to and enemies they can take from. Every type of good, service, acre, animal, and person on the planet can and has been assigned a monetary value. And in many cases those people, places, and things have been bought and sold based on that number at some point in history. Money is a natural part of any conversation about our trip around the sun.
No matter what your experience – and whether you have a lot or a little bit of it, money colors the decisions you make. So how then as writers should we account for money without falling into the realm of cliché? Here are some ideas I have but please share your thoughts in the comment section:
Know your characters’ income. The apartments in NYC-based TV sitcoms have (finally) been getting smaller. If you are a coffee shop waitress, you can’t afford a luxury Manhattan apartment without a complicated back story. Details matter. What your character makes for a living shouldn’t show up in black and white on the page, but will be reflected in where they live, what they buy and, likely, how they feel about themselves. What would your character spend an extra paycheck on? What would happen if they misplaced $100? $10?
Know your setting’s class structure. Joyce Carol Oates mentioned that her early work got a lot more interesting after she’d lived in Detroit, during a reading for her memoir, The Lost Landscape. She said while she’d always loved writing, the stories she penned as a girl from upstate New York growing up on a farm where about families and hillsides and didn’t account for the diversity and class struggles she was finally exposed to in that 1970 city. What are class dynamics at the time and place you’re setting your story in? How might this impact how your characters relate to one another? What they expect from authorities, neighbors, and people outside their usual social circle? Which taboo behaviors or relationships might exist that you can shed light on?
Play with the power. Everyday we make dozens of shared assumptions based on the expectation of money. We go to work, we place orders, we buy presents or treat friends to a drink. Partnerships built on wealth-sharing have some fascinating trust dynamics. Consequences and time can put pressure on agreements. Mismatched assumptions or cultural norms can strain a friendship or ruin a romance. In what ways can your character’s money expectations and norms fail them. We’ve all read books where losing a job or accruing an extra expense can put a strain on a couple or a family. These power dynamics continue to work because they are around us every day.
Money still feels like a gritty, uncomfortable subject to me. How much you make, how much you spend. The numbers themselves aren’t what’s interesting, it’s how those numbers come to define a person, dictate where and how they spend their evening, and who they spend time with and trust. One last money question: How much do you tip a cab driver who tells you his sister stole his inheritance and gives you a idea for your next blog post?