It seems that once certain stories appear on the literary radar the whole landscape changes and nearly everything that follows pales by comparison. What do these works offer readers that can help writers at all levels and styles better understand their own projects – and what’s missing?
Notice I didn’t say “personality”? The writer is consistently able to create separate, distinct, incorporeal humans on the page whether they’re primary or background characters, and whether they’re highly developed or not. Even the most cardboard hard-boiled gumshoe in great detective fiction is just the visible mask of something truer humming below the surface. There’s just no need to elaborate because of the nature of the genre. These are not just caricatures or sketches of humans with quirky traits that allow the reader to distinguish between them. People don’t just have traits. Life creates those traits. Each character has its own independent agency and motivations.
The mouth-wiping tic Stephen King gave Jack Torrance in The Shining would be little more than an annoying motif if it weren’t a symptom of the character’s slow and traceable crack-up. Rather than serving to define Jack’s nature, King comes at it from the opposite direction: the tic exists because of Jack’s nature, and that’s why it works. At the same time, Wendy’s paralyzing depression is a realistic and important response to living with an addict, but more importantly it frames up what must eventually happen far more dramatically than if she were written as someone coping just fine, or as a mountain of feminist strength. This is human. Together, the family forms a credible, traumatized portrait of mental fragility.
On the more literary end, every single member of the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying is unique and palpably so, drawn in strokes as simple as Vardaman’s “my mother is a fish”; and who could ever forget the cringe-worthy scene of a boy unwittingly boring holes through his mother’s face trying to provide air for her in the coffin? The whole novel is a master class in individuality and family dynamics and culture – together a grotesquerie of human experience.
2. Understanding human nature
Not just the ability to draw a believable human being on the page, but to understand how humans think and act – almost as if the writers were born with a set of templates in their brains, which allows them to get what sets a particular type of personality off in any given direction. They’re not starting with a circumstance and throwing a character in there to deal with it. Rather, great authors understand how certain types wind up in those circumstances to begin with in order to get themselves slapped around by the disaster that’s about to come. Back story isn’t just a filler, it offers up the root source of the story’s purpose and the character’s role in it.
Take The Quiet American, for example. Greene completely gets the brokenness and essential disconnection that creates the funnel into working in foreign correspondence and intelligence. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, in Alden Pyle you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with intellectuals to see how dehumanizing too much knowledge with too little understanding can be. How easy it is to core out the need for one kind of morality for ideals deemed far superior – and to apply to it the intellectual’s fervor that replaces the less savory fervor of religiosity. For Raskolnikov, for Greene’s Alden Pyle, ideals trump reality every time. It’s a blindness that hasn’t changed one iota for centuries in certain people and never will, and the greatest writers know this. It’s part of the human template.
Great authors are students of human behaviour. They’re masters at translating it for us ordinary folk who suffer from perceptual dystrophy. In all the best stories, the deeper you look the more there is to see. The farther you pull back, the more it all connects. As your life evolves and you go back to these narratives, your own maturation and life experience opens up new perceptions about what the story is about. And there’s always something you never saw before. That’s why there are some books people read over and over, each time seeming to evolve into something surprising.
3. Interpretation and translation of human speech
They’re the greatest mimics on the planet. They can capture the nuances of human communication so perfectly that the reader knows instantly, without any unnecessary tricks, who a character is – education, upbringing, intelligence, beliefs, even gender. Accents sound natural, even when the writer is not from that particular culture. Rather than risk creating cartoonishly absurd diction, they opt to tone down so transliteration captures the essence of speech rather than merely the sounds of it. Under-doing has no down-side; over-doing it is all down-side.
4. Character development = story development = character development
Character development works in tandem with story development. They’re inextricable. If you mess up story development, you mess up character. If you don’t get the right character in the right circumstances, you mess up story development.
5. Setting as character
Setting serves the story or, if that’s not possible or desirable, it’s symbolized completely, letting character speak for and lend meaning to place (which Death Of A Salesman does superbly). Place becomes a living, breathing actor upon the characters’ circumstances. Think of the oppressive, sweat-inducing humidity and heat that go hand-in-hand with the oppressive political conditions in Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously and Kingsolvers’s The Poisonwood Bible or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
6. Place is never just a location
If setting is just window dressing because you happened to vacation there with your mom and dad in ’04, don’t bother. Although great writers do their best work writing about the places that created them, they write with equal authority about other places because they do not seek to expose the outward trappings of place like some literary tour-book; rather, they are able to uncover the beating heart of place without even having to hint at publicly definable tourist-trap features. When they travel, they go with their perceptual eye peeled wide open, watching behaviour, observing atmosphere, taking notes. They have a knack for understanding and crystallizing what they’re seeing, often better than the people who live there.
7. Human and place
Place is creative. It’s generative. Deep observers of humanity see those connections in everything. How a person grows up, how their character is formed, is as much a product of place as family and culture and genetics.
Could you write a story like Dickey’s Deliverance without tapping into the outsider’s fear and misunderstanding of mountain people and inbreeding? Would there even be a story if Dickey had set it in Long Island or Nunavut?
No. Because place is generative. Place creates. The best writers know this.
8. Time and character
The breakdown of Anna Karenina occurs in tandem with the breakdown of Russian society that presages the Bolshevik Revolution. The novel is a reflection on and a statement about a particular time. In Beloved, Sethe and her family’s struggle to free themselves of a supernatural force mirrors the struggle of ex-slaves to free themselves from the past in the years immediately after the Civil War.
Characters are both subject and product of a time. In order for Sethe’s story to encompass the greater story, it must be materially and rawly connected to the relevant past. It must be Sethe’s own experience, with very real cause and effect (to be so desperate for freedom that she is willing to kill her own child to prevent her enslavement).
A particular time creates the window of opportunity for a character’s particular experience, out of which only one story seems possible or worth telling.
It’s a potential for character that would lose its reach and potency told at any other time in history. Time seems to cleave open for great storytellers who recognize in the moment a kind of synergistic opportunity, in the same way great sculptors seem to look at a piece of stone and know instantly what lies within waiting to be revealed – that only one particular story must be formed out of it to reveal something much larger.
9. Time and place
Some places only exist in a particular way for a brief time. Before, they were too small or too undeveloped or too stable to fund a story of any significance; any later and place loses its storytelling characteristics. It’s too big, too changed, or altogether gone. Alaska during the Gold Rush. Dustbowl Oklahoma during the Depression. The Old South.
But great writers somehow always manage to show us that no place, even the most unknowable blips on the historical horizon, is ever truly unfamiliar, or ever truly known.
10. Time and Time
In the same way that time and place can form a storytelling nexus, time can also create its own meaning that becomes synonymous with an era. If someone mentions the Sixties, that simple identifier funds an entire cultural memory for different parts of the world. The Soviet Sixties evokes its greyscale oppressiveness in contrast to the wild, colorful, rule-breaking Sixties of the West.
Great writers don’t play into cliche, but rather they take the unavoidable realities of a cultural time and create something unique without stepping outside truth. They do this in delicate strokes and in nuance, so readers know the when of a story that isn’t defined by it.
Creating the cultural-era equivalent of a guide-book is not an option unless you’re writing satire or farce. That’s because real people just don’t live the guide-book. Most people rarely have first-hand contact with the cliches; only Forrest Gump could get away with it. For the most, those cliches just sort of brush by us or appear in the distance.
Stay tuned for Part 2: 10 more Non-Negotiable Qualities of a Timeless Story