“Julie and the Warlord,” by B.J. Novak, follows a couple on their first date after meeting through an online dating website. Julie has had a bit too much to drink, and the man, whose name never appears, seems to be just being polite until Julie asks about his career. He explains to her that he is a warlord. As a warlord, he and his team control the Congo. He does not enforce laws or govern, but rather attack the people when the country becomes abundant with natural resources but lacks enough government protection. They bribe, kidnap, indoctrinate, torture, recruit, and kill until the country reaches satisfactory protection and resources. Julie is rather taken aback and does not especially like this warlord business, and only partially listens to him continue to explain. They eventually tone the conversation back down and discuss inane topics such Twitter, clothing brands, menus, and chocolate cake. They order a flourless chocolate cake to split, and the waitress comes back a little later with it. She asks if they want anything else, and after the warlord says he has a driver, Julie orders a fourth cocktail.
There is so much that goes on in this story beneath the action and dialogue… through action and dialogue. For example:
“Ooh! Okay, this is fun. Are you a … landlord? Because I do not have the best history getting along with landlords. My first apartment—”
“I’m not a landlord.”
The way Julie strays from the subject so quickly and easily onto a personal story, especially after she’s just stopped talking about herself, tells us a little something about her character (she’s conceited and unthoughtful). Meanwhile, the Warlord’s interjection shows how he is not one to accept such impertinence (which makes sense considering what he does for a living).
“Are you … a … drug lord?” Julie said, stroke-poking the side of his face with her finger.
If it was not already made clear how drunk Julie is, here’s another clue. Disregarding the intoxication, this also shows how cheeky Julie is in general. I’m not entirely sure what a stroke-poke is, but it certainly is not something you do over dinner to the face of some guy you just met as you ask if he’s a drug lord. From this action we can tell her lack of boundaries and manners may get in the way of this relationship, what with him being so impassive.
Character quirks such as these are what shapes the story. Imagine the same story without any gestures, the same conversation between two ordinary folks. Say their names are Sam and Pam:
“Okay, enough about me,” said Pam. “What do you do?”
“You mean like what’s my job?”
“Yes, like what’s your job.”
Sam answered, but Pam didn’t hear him clearly.
“Sorry, could you repeat that? All I heard was ‘lord’.”
“Yes, I’m a warlord.”
“I do not know what that is. Could you explain it to me?”
Sam nodded. “Certainly. As a warlord, I…”
See? The same thing happens, but without Julie’s playful ill manner or the warlord’s curtness, the story is bland and hardly entertaining or meaningful.
I admire the seamlessness of the characterization through showing instead of telling and hope to incorporate this into my own writing. I believe that can contribute to the entertainment, sophistication, captivation of the reader, or all three, depending on the circumstance and the piece itself.
- Why do you think the warlord’s name was never mentioned?
- Will these two stay together after this date?
- Did Julie grow on the warlord over the course of the story?