Use Diatribes to Improve Your Fictional Characters
diatribe: n. a forceful and bitter verbal attack against someone or something
I recently turned a diatribe about today’s youth into a satire, and it was a cleansing experience. You’ve heard diatribes before. Rush Limbaugh made his living making them on the radio. Some preachers spout diatribes from the pulpit every service. Parents and grandparents often go off in diatribes, too. Maybe you’ve made them before. People in real life do it all the time because we are a fussing breed. We talk it out in our cars while we’re stuck in traffic. We go off in blogs when we’re incensed at something the government is (or isn’t) doing. We have one-sided “conversations” with other people and don’t let them get in a word in edgewise.
Sometimes letting a character go off in a story or novel can help you make an otherwise nondescript character spring to life. Allowing a character to speak or think his or her piece in a loud soliloquy can be revealing, and diatribes are extremely fun to write. I’ve had characters spout off on movies, reality TV, celebrities, men, women, romance novels, relationships, the law, their jobs, and their hometowns. When characters cleanse their systems, readers get to know what characters think and how they think quickly. Readers also get to know different layers of characters’ personalities.
For whatever reason, American authors have written quite a few diatribes. The Declaration of Independence itself could be considered a diatribe since it rants about King George III. Here is a small sample to inspire you:
Excerpt from "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)
In this diatribe, Emerson rails against conformity:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Excerpts from "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau (1849)
In this diatribe, Thoreau censures the young American government:
“Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”
Excerpt from “Slavery in Massachusetts” by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
In this diatribe, Thoreau criticizes the Fugitive Slave Act:
“Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty — and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the right to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. Nowadays, men wear a fool's-cap, and call it a liberty-cap. I do not know but there are some who, if they were tied to a whipping-post, and could but get one hand free, would use it to ring the bells and fire the cannons to celebrate their liberty. So some of my townsmen took the liberty to ring and fire. That was the extent of their freedom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also; when the powder was all expended, their liberty went off with the smoke.”
Excerpt from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884)
In this fictional diatribe, Pap harangues the government:
“Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it's like. Here's the law a-standing ready to take a man's son away from him -- a man's own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin' for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment!”
Excerpt from Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" (1905)
Twain wrote this diatribe in opposition to the American-Philippines War (1899-1902):
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”
Excerpt from Dennis Miller's "Civility" (1995)
Miller performed this diatribe on rudeness:
“Feigning outrage in our present climate of rudeness is just hilarious to me. Has anybody else noticed that courtesy and civility in this culture are disappearing faster than a pack of smokes at an AA meeting? And you know it appears as if we've given up even trying to preserve it. Most people seem to accept this disintegration of manners as a fait accompli and have simply lined the borders of their personal space with razor wire. Now I don't want to get off on a rant here but we've devolved over the last few decades from a Barry Lyndon gentility to a bunch of thunder-domed mooks. Nowadays thoughtless clods all across this once great land of ours do everything from clipping their fingernails at a funeral to checking themselves for polyps in the buffet line.”
Excerpt from Dennis Miller’s “Psychiatry” (2001)
Miller performed this diatribe against Americans’ reliance on psychiatrists:
“Now I don't want to get off on a rant here, but even the best psychiatrist is like a blindfolded auto mechanic poking around under your hood with a giant foam "We're #1" finger. Though definitely a Western phenomenon, psychiatry hearkens back to traditional, tribal forms of healing, in which the right combination of words and potions would ease your tortured spirit. I can just picture an African Bushman, lying on a dirt floor, anxiously telling his medicine man this nightmare he keeps having about showing up at work fully clothed. Even though it was invented in Europe, psychiatry could only become the multi-million-dollar business it is today here in the United States. We're the only people in the world who are stupid enough to actually want to know what's going on inside our minds. Americans couldn't be more self-absorbed if they were made of equal parts water and paper towel.”
Excerpt from J. J. Murray's I'm Your Girl (2006)
I wrote this diatribe on movies for my shy librarian to think about while she worked:
“ … in real life, brand new cars usually start 99% of the time and don’t break down on lonely wilderness roads where beady-eyed strangers with maniacal thoughts happen to show up out of the Technicolor blue to help, despite the fact that the population of said wilderness is 0.5 people and 95 squirrels per square mile. In real life, drivers usually insert the correct key in the ignition the first time, and homeowners find the front door key in milliseconds, not dropping the key ring while the masked man with the machete slinks closer at 0.2 miles per hour. In real life, most deadbolts hold and don’t break the first time the cop or villain (or cop/villain) kicks in the door, and the doors don’t splinter because most of them aren’t made out of real wood anymore. And the people in the movies aren’t real either. In real life, people have gas, runny noses, diarrhea, weak and/or small bladders, and constipation. Unless filmmakers want to do a teen comedy or get an R-rating, their people have to be sniffle-free and regular so no one will have to use the restroom for 100 minutes. In real life, children aren’t always cute, don’t have snappy, adult-sounding comebacks, usually have some piece of green snot or other bodily crud somewhere on their bodies, aren’t always clean or dressed perfectly, and occasionally say the darndest things. I ought to know. I work in a library that literally crawls with snotty kids every Saturday morning …”
Tips for using diatribes in fiction
- Have your character say (or think) what you’re thinking or feeling at the moment. What’s bugging you right now? Write it out in a bold, new, and incendiary way. For ideas, I simply surf the TV or the Internet, and I always find something that ticks me off.
- Make your words bite and shock, the more colorful and inflammatory the better.
- Give these words to your most vociferous character—or to your least. Perhaps the climax of your work will be a diatribe from the least likely character. When usually quiet Celie finally goes off in The Color Purple, she creates one of the most memorable fiction and movie scenes of all time.
- Go off at length and let it flow. You can always go back and make it more logical later. The preceding diatribes all contain a large amount of logic. There weren't frothing rants.
- Make sure the beginning of the diatribe flows from what precedes it. It shouldn’t pop up unexpectedly or dominate an entire chapter unless you're using it as your climax.
- Make sure the ending of the diatribe flows into or sets up what’s next. Your diatribe should move the plot along, not slow it down or stop it.
- Use diatribes sparingly and for effect. A series of diatribes strung together can start to sound like those annoying election ads.
Hey, there’s a good idea for a diatribe. You can’t turn on the TV for more than fifteen seconds during election season without some bonehead candidate approving all the lies he’s about to say—
Oh, sorry. It’s your turn. Try inserting a diatribe into whatever you’re working on right now.