Writing Jerks

Writing Jerks

Craft Notes: A Prose Central Series

By DeWitt Henry, Prose Editor

DeWitt Henry

I evolved shoptalk or notebook sheets during my teaching of fiction workshops, which proved helpful to me and to students. I asked them to ask themselves about character, plot, setting, dialogue, sensory imagery, sentimentality, translation, simultaneous actions and other aspects of craft. But foremost of all was “on character.” This series reflects my personal sense of what makes one person interesting or recognizably different from others in life and on the page. Different writers will have different questions.

Gulls, Fools, Butts and Spoilers (AKA Jerks)

Who annoys you? Who should manage or control her or himself better? Who should know better?  Why do you call someone a jerk? Try to imagine a character you initially want the reader to understand as negative (not evil, just incompatibly different, insufferable, or inappropriate). The nature of fiction will lead you to explore the character’s humanity. Often we initially despise in others what we most fear and despise in ourselves.

Here are some scenes where an in-group of like-minded friends join in mocking an outsider—outside by lacking wit, outside by social status, outside by culture—and as result are challenged to reevaluate their supposed superiority. The result can be comic or tragic or both.

Jane Austen’s Miss Bates (from Emma)

Supper was announced.  The move began; and Miss Bates might be heard from that moment without interruption, till her being seated at table and taking up her spoon.

“Jane, Jane, my dear Jane, where are you? Here is your tippet.   Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet.  She says she is afraid there be draughts in the passage, though everything has been done—one door nailed up—quantities of matting—my dear Jane, indeed you must.  Mr. Churchill, oh! You are too obliging.  How well you put it on—so gratified! Excellent dancing indeed.  Yes, my dear, I ran home, as I said I should, to help grandmamma to bed, and got back again, and nobody missed me.  I set off without saying a word, just as I told you.  Grandmamma was quite well, had a charming evening with Mr. Woodhouse, a vast deal of chat, and backgammon…” (308)


“Oh! Very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates: “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know.  I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?” (looking round with the most good-humored dependence on everybody’s assent).  “Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty.  Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.

“Ah! Well—to be sure.  Yes, I see what she means” (turning to Mr. Knightly), “and I will try to hold my tongue.  I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.” (345)


“…It was badly done, indeed!  You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour—to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant of you, Emma—and it is far from pleasant to me…” (350)


Poor Miss Bates, civil and humble as usual, looked as if she did not quite understand what was going on…Emma…had a moment’s fear of Miss Bates keeping away from her.  But Miss Bates soon came—“Very happy and obliged”—but Emma’s conscience told her that there was not the same cheerful volubility as before—less ease of look and manner. (353)

Stephen Crane’s Swede (From “The Blue Hotel”)

A new game was formed jocosely. The cowboy volunteered to become the partner of Johnnie, and they all then turned to ask the Swede to throw in his lot with the little Easterner.  He asked some questions about the game, and learning that it wore many names, and that he had played it when it was under an alias, he accepted the invitation. He strode toward the men nervously, as if he expected to be assau1ted. Finally, seated, he gazed, from face and laughed shrilly. This laugh was so, strange that the Easterner looked up quickly, the cowboy sat intent and with his mouth open,  and Johnnie paused, holding the cards with still fingers.

Afterward there was a short silence. Then Johnnie said, “Well, let’s get at it. Come on now!”  They pulled their chairs forward until their knees were bunched under the board. They began to play, and their interest in the game caused the others to forget the manner of the Swede.

The cowboy was a board-whacker. Each time that he held superior cards, he whanged them, one by one, with exceeding force, down upon the improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess and pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his opponents. A game with a board-whacker in it is sure to become intense. The countenances of the Easterner and the Swede were miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his aces and kings, while Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and chuckled.

Because of the absorbing play, none considered the strange ways of the Swede.  They paid strict heed to the game. Finally, during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: “I suppose there have been men killed in this room.”  The jaws of the others dropped and they looked at him. 

“What in hell are you talking about?” said Johnnie.

The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of false courage and defiance. “Oh, you know what I mean, all right,” he answered.

“I’m a liar if I do!” Johnnie protested. The card was halted, and the men stared at the Swede. Johnnie evidently felt that as the son of the proprietor he should make a direct inquiry.  “Now what might you be drivjn’ at, mister?” he asked. The Swede winked at him. It was a wink full of cunning. His fingers shook on the edge of the board. “Oh, maybe you think I have been to nowheres.  Maybe you think I’m a tenderfoot?”

The cowboy, who had been steadily gazing at the Swede, then spoke: “What’s wrong with you, mister?”

Apparently it seemed to the Swede that he was formidably menaced.  He shivered and turned white near the corners of his mouth. He sent an appealing glance in the direction of the little Easterner. During these moments, he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot valor.  “They say they don’t know what I mean,” he remarked mockingly to the Easterner.

The latter answered after prolonged and cautious reflection. “I don’t understand you,” he said impassively.


“The Swede might not have been killed if everything had been square.”

“Might not have been killed?” exclaimed the cowboy. “Everythin’ square?  Why, when he said that Johnnie was cheatin’ and acted like such a jackass? And then in the saloon he fairly walked up to git hurt?” With these arguments the cowboy browbeat the Easterner and reduced him to rage.

“You’re a fool!” cried the Easterner viciously. “You’re a bigger jackass than the Swede by a million majority. Now let me tell you one thing. Let me tell you something.  Listen.  Johnnie was cheating!”

“Johnnie,” said the cowboy blankly. There was a minute of silence, and then he said robustly, “Why, no.  The game was only for fun.”

“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating.  I saw him. I know it. I saw him.  And I refused to do stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and waiting to fight…We are all in it!”

Hemingway’s Robert Cohen (From The Sun Also Rises)

Robert Cohen was a member, though his father, of one of the richest Jewish families in New York, and through his mother of one of the oldest. At the military school where he prepped for Princeton, and played a very good end on the football team, no one had made him race-conscious. No one had ever made him feel he was a Jew, and hence any different from anybody else, until he went to Princeton. He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and very shy, and it made him bitter. He took it out in boxing, and he came out of Princeton with painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married by the first girl who was nice to him. He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter. As he had been thinking for months about leaving his wife and had not done it because it would be too cruel to deprive her of himself, her departure was a very healthful shock. (4)


“Oh, shut up, Mike! Nobody interrupted you.”

“No, I’d like to get this settled.” He turned away from me. “Do you think you amount to something, Cohn? Do you think you belong here among us? People who are out to have a good time? For God’s sake don’t be so noisy, Cohn!”

“Oh, cut it out, Mike,” Cohn said.

“Do you think Brett wants you here? Do you think you add to the party? Why don’t you say something?”

“I said all I had to say the other night, Mike.”

“I’m not one of you literary chaps.” Mike stood shakily and leaned against the table. “I’m not clever. But I do know when I’m not wanted. Why don’t you see when you’re not wanted, Cohn?  Go away. Go away, for God’s sake. Take that sad Jewish face away. Don’t you think I’m right?”

He looked at us.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s all go over to the Iruna.”

“No. Do you think I’m right? I love that woman.”

“Oh, don’t start that again. Do shove it along, Michael,” Brett said.

“Don’t you think I’m right, Jake?”

Cohn still sat at the table. His face had the sallow, yellow look it got when he was insulted, but somehow he seemed to be enjoying it. The children, drunken heroics of it.  It was his affair with a lady of title.

“Jake,” Mike said. He was almost crying. “You know I’m right.  Listen, you!” He turned to Cohn: “Go away! Go away now!”

“But I won’t go, Mike,” said Cohn.

“Then I’ll make you!” Mike started toward him around the table. Cohn stood up and took off his glasses. He stood waiting, his face sallow, his hands fairly low, proudly and firmly waiting for the assault, ready to do battle for his lady love.

I grabbed Mike. “Come to the café,” I said. “You can’t hit him here in the hotel.”

“Good!” said Mike. “Good idea!”

We started off. I looked back as Mike stumbled up the stairs and saw Cohn putting his glasses back on again. Bill was sitting at the table pouring another glass of Fundador. Brett was sitting looking straight ahead at nothing.

James Jones’s Pfc Bloom (From From Here to Eternity)

Andy was dealing when the saloon doors opened and Pfc Bloom came in, pushing the door back so hard it banged against the wall and then swung back and forth squeaking loudly. Pfc Bloom advanced on the men around the blanket with a heavy, meaty confidence, grinning and shaking his flat kinky head, so big the tremendous shoulders seemed to fill the door.

“Quiet, jerk,” Maggio said. “You want the CQ up here and break up the game?”

“To hell with the CQ,” Bloom said, in his customary loud voice. “And you too, you little Wop.”

A transformation went over Maggio. He stood up and walked around the blanket, up to the huge Bloom who towered over him.

“Listen,” he said in a contorted voice. “I’m particular who calls me Wop. I ain’t big and tough and I ain’t one of Dynamite’s third rate punchies. But I’m still Maggio to you. I won’t mess with you. I work you over, I’ll do it with chair or a knife.” He stared up at Bloom, his thin face twisted, his eyes blazing.

“Oh,yeah?” Bloom said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Maggio said sarcastically. Bloom took a step toward him and he leaned his head forward pugnaciously on the thin bony shoulders, and there was the sudden attentive silence that always precedes a fight.

“Lay off, Bloom,” Prew said, surprised at the clear loudness of his voice in the silence. “Come on and sit down, Angelo. Five up to you.”

“I call,” Maggio said, without looking around. “Take off, you bum,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. Bloom laughed after him self-confidently and nastily.

“Deal me in,” Bloom said, elbowing in between Sussman and Sal Clark.

“We got five players,” Maggio said.

“Yeah?” Bloom said. “So what?  You can take seven players in draw poker.”

“This is stud,” Maggio said.

“You can take ten then,” Bloom said, missing the point.

“Maybe we don’t want no more,” Prew said, squinting his holecard through the smoke of his cigarette.

“Yeah?” Bloom said. “What’sa matter? Ain’t my money no good?”

“Not if its in your pocket,” Maggio said.Its probly counterfeit.”

Bloom laughed loudly. “You’re a character, Angelo.”

“To you I’m Maggio. Private Maggio.”

“Cheer up,” Bloom laughed. “You might make Pfc yourself someday, kid.” He looked down and brushed the new stripes on his shirt caressingly.

“I hope not,” Maggio said. “I sincerely, truly hope not. I might turn out to be a son of a bitch, too.”

“Hey,” Bloom said. “You mean me?  Are you callin me a son of a bitch?”

“If the shoe fits, friend, you wear it,” Maggio said.

Bloom looked at him a minute, puzzled, not sure if he had been insulted or not, not able to understand why the antagonism, then he decided to laugh. “You’re a character, Angelo. For a minute I thought you was serious. Who’s got all the cigarettes?” he asked. Nobody answered.

(For two other classic examples see Absolon in Chaucer’s “The Millers Tale” and Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Read more Shoptalk posts on writing here.

Leave a Reply