Tag Archives: writing about character

The Story Analyst: Character vs. The Moment

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookBelievable characters work in a kind of inviolable synchronicity with story itself. Sometimes character is more important than almost any other part of the story, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Other times, as in much genre or pulp fiction, characters are little more than lightly sketched catalysts for the story’s unfolding details.

So what makes a character credible?

Whether you’re writing cardboard characters or hanging a literary skin on a complex psychological, emotional, intellectual, and experiential scaffolding, there must still be something true about them for the reader. The best opportunities to use character to create energy and momentum for a story is through moments of decision or crisis. Growth – or lack of it – should not only enrich the story’s path, but also solidify the reader’s trust even when they hate what the character does. A reader who throws a book down and screams, “That would never happen!” is very different from one who screams, “That’s not what I expected to happen!” As a writer you want to aim for taking characters in a direction that both works for the story and takes the reader by surprise.

Here’s a great example. Apologies to those who are not Walking Dead fans. Also condolences. Truly. The following scene hails from the Season 5 premiere, and it depicts the moment when Carol and Daryl reunite after a long separation brought about when Rick, the de facto leader of our merry band of survivors, expelled Carol from the group when she broke the only rule that safeguarded their humanity: she killed the living who were not an immediate threat to personal or group safety.

Now, Carol and Daryl were developing a romantic relationship when all this happened. This scene nakedly exposes how they feel about each other. But it also reveals so much more.

In this scene the two are drawn like magnets, running into each others’ arms with almost childlike abandon. Daryl, self-styled white trash, tough guy, bad boy, bites back a big gut sob just having her in his arms. He steps back, hesitant, like a little boy who doesn’t know where to put such big emotions, but the best he can do is drop his head against her shoulder and let her hold him. It’s almost mother/son-ish.

But why doesn’t Daryl kiss her? Why doesn’t she kiss him? Glenn and Maggie would have (kissed each other, that is). I mean, Carol salvaged Daryl’s crossbow (sniff) and brought it to him. His crossbow, people. Sniff. If that’s not love, what is? That’s how gals like Carol roll, right?

That’s so romantic.

Should they have kissed? What would it mean if the writers had given them that “first” in this scene? Sure, it would have pandered to a moment of high emotion, and to the viewers’ desire to see these two find something beautiful in each other in such an awful world, but it would have done nothing to reflect or explore – or further – character. Nor would it have served as a social commentary about the world before and after zombification.

It reveals so much more about who these people are and their social conditioning to have not kissed. Obvious is that the feelings these two have for each other are singular, and belong only to them and between them, but the missing kiss suggests that while they clearly have cared about each other, the blush might be off this rose. Maybe Carol and Tyrese bonded just enough to make her doubt her feelings for Daryl. Maybe what Daryl experienced with Beth on the run, then losing her the way he did, hurt more deeply than it appeared.

There’s a wall up between them. That much is clear.

Let’s take it up a notch. The moment reveals some residual resentment or reticence after having been ex-communicated and left to fend for herself. Who knows what she experienced out there on her own? Carol’s doubt about her acceptance by the group and by Daryl could also be implied. Don’t forget that Carol was in an abusive marriage before the swine Ed got what he deserved: a zombie to the jugular and a few well deserved blows to the brain stem delivered by Carol. Carol’s whole past with men is in that not-kiss. It is not easy for abused women to trust – not men, yes, but they don’t trust their feelings or their gut instinct either. How could Carol physically give herself over to any man after Ed, but more importantly how can she trust her attraction to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is (was?) a whole nuther level of human scum who shared a bloodline with the likes of Merle?

Oh, we all love Daryl but let’s face it, he’s not exactly the kind of fella a well-bred lady would take home to meet the folks, even if there aren’t any folks left to care about social niceties. In that not-kiss moment Carol probably went with her primal attraction and ran to him, then thought, “Carol, what are you doing? Sure, he’s hot but do you really see yourself scrubbing out the skidmarks in his gotchies while he gets pig-eyed over a barrel of rotgut? Didn’t you learn your lesson from Ed?”

The not-kiss also reveals Daryl’s inability to accept himself yet as part of this society – one made up of the same types of people who wouldn’t have even made eye contact with him in the before-time. Maybe he even picks up on Carol’s hesitation or doubt. Right now, in this moment in all its raw emotion, Daryl’s pre-zombie identity is painfully still very much in play. It’s what impels him to move aside despite his feelings and his need for Carol, to make way for Rick. Who, by the way, made the high-handed executive decision behind everyone’s backs to exile Carol to begin with. Daryl’s before-self is still holding him back from allowing love, friendship, passion, romance – and even the brotherhood that Rick proclaimed last season. He steps aside because he knows he’s not Rick’s brother, not his equal. Not anyone’s equal. That’s the Daryl who didn’t matter to anyone peeking through. When he’s killing walkers there is a sense of simpatico between Daryl’s former self and his survivor self. But what is Daryl in love? What is Daryl with love?

Daryl don’t know.

Nor should we.

In one curious omission during a critical scene – the lack of a kiss – who Daryl and Carol were, who they are, and who they’re becoming – are all exposed in one shot. That’s credible character development.

Not kissing means that viewers have something to anticipate. A kiss would have left no room for guessing. Maybe it will still be a private moment between them later on, and in nine months baby Judith will have an ersatz brother or sister. Or it could mean the dissolution of their relationship because Daryl will realize he has to keep his walls up if he wants to survive.

For Daryl and Carol, kissing would have told us about what was. Not kissing told us about what could be. It’s fraught with possibility. It keeps viewers moving forward. It’s the not knowing that’s so delicious.

That’s how writers can create moments that are not just true for character, but sizzling with potential, all without compromising the credibility that readers and viewers depend upon in good storytelling.

Create moments like this in your writing, and you will have readers kissing your hand. Or not.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Banning Books … Yours

Are writers involved in book banning before their manuscripts even reach the final word?

One of the most complex responsibilities weighing on a writer is honest engagement with life and ideas, and history. This is probably a concept that barely resonates in a world where it’s impossible to know whether Lady Gaga is a feminist icon or a feminist disgrace, and where the moralizing force behind every stripe of argument is enough to make anyone completely disconnect from the debate.

Gender, race, religion, and politics have become equally polarizing over the last century or so, when the velocity of change has swept away most social certainties, leaving opposing factions to duke it out for ownership of our brainspace. The silenced grey areas between seem to have become so fogged in by agendas as to thwart critical thinking altogether.

A few years ago a group of writers, all of whom were highly educated and at various stages of their writing careers, were sharing their work. The majority were men. After a while the women in the group began to recognise a pattern in the men’s writing: it was frighteningly misogynist. In almost every story the characters – both male and female – bowed unquestioningly to women’s roles as idiot, sexual object – mostly sexual object – whore, slut, stupid, fat, ugly cow, hot babe. Not once were women presented as fully human. This wouldn’t have been an issue if it were an intentional misogyny, written to allow the reader into an important debate about gender attitudes and the failure to raise generations of better men. To have male writers involved in such social critique would have been welcome, because the critique is not just about how men treat women or what they think about them, but about what women exemplify as well as what we think of ourselves.

How did the women recognize the difference between writing about misogyny and being mysogynist? For one, the writers could not understand how their work could be conceived as misogynist. There was no conscious grasp on the message they were writing. Their characters were a stark expression, not of an ugly social reality but of their own unmediated attitudes (and obviously those of most men they knew) rather than a mirror in which readers could evaluate social attitudes themselves. Intelligent readers can’t be engaged by writing that is not greater than the writer’s ideas. Otherwise it’s just a screed.

I use this anecdote to illustrate the conditions of modern literary discourse, which is becoming reflected in the final product: how do writers define when they’ve crossed the line between a social-historical context portrayed with integrity and one that screams inadvertent or malicious bigotry?

This is so brutal a subject to engage in openly and honestly. In my own experience with writing and teaching difference – how difference informs the way we write ourselves and what we write – the predominant reaction to the very topic, before any critical theory had even been presented, before anyone had begun to engage in the discourse, was deafening silence and a physically palpable discomfort.

In pre-WWII life our parents and grandparents would have taken a Sunday drive to the beach on a sultry summer day. Towels and picnic baskets and kids and umbrellas in hand, they would have stepped from the pavement of a parking lot or curb onto a sandy stretch and quite possibly passed a sign reading “No dogs or Coloreds or Jews allowed” (actually, some of the nomenclature was worse, but we all know that). The sign would have hardly begged a glance. Unless, of course, you were a black or Jewish family. With a dog.

When was the last time any writer brought such signs into a story where the characters (or the writers) weren’t deeply and personally targeted by them?

When was the last time any writer portrayed that world, here in the West? What does it do to historicity if that world is forgotten? How will we understand ourselves when it is?

Here’s where the writer comes in. Writers are taking the easy way out. We’re bowing out of the responsibility of recording life with historical integrity. Characters are no longer occupying a real time and place where ugly, painful realities and Otherness are part of the air characters breathe. How do we write about a racist society without always making the protagonists enlightened, compassionate, colour-blind? How do we write misogyny without writing misogynist literature? How do writers portray – honestly – the world as it really was, and still is?

The truth is, it just isn’t happening. Writers are creating stories that turn a blind eye, erase, edit, and reinvent reality, just as the moralizing book-banners are trying to do. If we forget that the world of Huckleberry Finn really existed, we lose our grasp of what our society once was. We risk denying that the pandemic rests dormant within us still. The society that no longer understands the past nurtures the viral nature of ideological and social disorder.

We must write the world in all its complexities; to do otherwise is to risk writing caricature or idealizing, demonizing, or infantalizing either a majority group or a minority. Otherwise we’re no better than those who ban Solzhenitsyn or Salman Rushdie for doing exactly what writers should be doing – writing toward an honest social discourse. To write ignoring fact or reality denies us our reasons for needing change and action – in terms of how and who we enfranchise and disenfranchise, and in terms of how groups rethink themselves.

In essence we’re banning the book we should have written.

Make a choice to write courageously, to say something important about life, it’s glories and its disgraces alike, right from the seat of the powerful to the very bottom of society. Make readers think and engage. Fire up our critical thinking faculties. Make us rage and cheer and doubt. Change us.

Animal Farm. Brave New World. Candide. All Quiet On The Western Front. Diary of Anne Frank.

All banned somewhere at some point.

In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex the protagonist’s grandmother Desdemona, a Greek immigrant, goes into Detroit’s Hastings Street, the heart of what was then Paradise Valley where the majority of black citizens lived. It’s a moment that would make any reader’s mouth go dry (is he a racist for remarking on such a thing? For writing it? Are we racists for reading it or because somehow Desdemona’s eyes saw what our eyes have seen? Is it okay to make a critical observation about a minority? Why does it make us feel all weird inside?). It must have filled Eugenides with deep self-doubt and discomfort to write.

In the hands of a lesser writer the scene would have unfolded as a slightly disguised rant against racist America, or described in the tradition of the noble and downtrodden. But Eugenides sidesteps that ugly nowhere land. Here’s why he nailed it:

1. He remembered his character. A European immigrant at that time had no meaningful concern about America’s race history, or that segregation was at all odd.  Cultural groups huddled together for comfort and survival. Nothing more, nothing less. The immigrant’s whole being is focused on their own survival, not someone else’s. You worry about your own problems, I’ll worry about mine; and if you fail at solving your problems – well, that’s your problem. To inject a sudden social consciousness into Desdemona’s mindset would have played false and smacked of pandering.

2. He remembered his characters’ cultural group. You work hard, you succeed: the immigrant credo. That’s the lens through which the character’s reality is filtered. So Hastings Street to Desdemona is framed up on the timber of dichotomy: hard-working/lazy, smart/stupid, moral/immoral. Eugenides knows cultural history, and as readers we know intuitively that there’s an internal integrity to the scene because of it.

2. He remembered the time. The characters’ attitudes reflect the attitudes of the day. Them. Us. That’s how the world was divided. Eugenides infuses his narrative with the consciousness of the era, not his own.

But in the end, Desdemona’s observations do not dehumanize because Eugenides writes that society in the same normative tone as he does the Greek culture. Desdemona’s perception is not the writer’s perception or the only perception.

If you want to read another gulp-producing take on a polarizing issue, read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s an unflinching look at the Vietnam War and the young men who served, and probably the best war novel ever written. Bring Pepto. The author never takes the easy way out.

On the other hand, Franzen’s Freedom tries, then flinches and backs off. Maybe he didn’t know how to write Otherness without revealing something about himself.

Great writers face the tough stuff head on. This is the integrity that’s needed in writing today, not to service agendas or to hang a festoon across a book’s pages. The narrative has to be bigger than the writer, more intelligent, more open to possibilities than the most iron-clad of a writer’s beliefs. For great storytelling a writer has to rise above him or herself t0 depict even a world they despise. Storytelling has to be honest to character and experience and place, to bring about a squirm factor rather than run from it. This is the only way we, as readers, can be transformed by the written page. We squirm in that discomfort, then we examine exactly what it is that makes us squirm – our own notions about the world, ourselves, others. If writers fail to engage the reader this way, then we must finally acknowledge that contemporary  writing is a mere confection meant to go down easily. But beware: when it’s all confection, we perish from malnourishment.

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Stuck Noplace, Going Nowhere – Writer’s Purgatory

Great idea? Check. Great characters? Check.

Plot? Well … maybe not so great. Maybe there’s a problem in the metaphor and motif department. The characters are just laying there like soggy noodles. Who knows what’s going wrong but everyone has an idea. You get advice and tips from the internet – everything from psychotherapy to taking a shower to CoQ-10. Your friends commiserate, tell you to take a break, write something else. Strangers roll their eyes and tell you to get a real job.

Oh yeah, they’re thinking it. They all do.

Whatever the problem is, the writer is always the last to know.

From literary fiction to sci-fi fantasy, there are two elements that root all storytelling: character, and place. Everything else derives from the dynamic created in the interactions between character and place. Plot, symbols, metaphor, even structure are their offshoots. Think about The Great Gatsby’s green light at the end of the dock. It’s significance – why the end of a dock, why that dock, why a green light – is unquestionably tied to the characters and place.

Place, by the way, is not just household, city, street, farm, planet; it includes historical place, which could be mistakenly interchanged with time. Antebellum America. Here, today. Partition India. Stardate 2760 (as opposed to Stardate 2740). The two cannot be separate and distinct because place without time is unidentifiable and generic. Time without place is meaningless.  Joyce’s fragmented stream-of-consciousness tomes are a great example. In superior writing there is no generic, frankly because nothing in life happens without the deep and abiding symbiosis between time and place.  Tell me something about Detroit. Detroit when? Gilded Age Detroit? Ford’s Detroit? Post Riot Detroit (which riot –  ’43 or ’67? It matters). Take readers to Egypt, but make sure the Egypt described is apt. Don’t mistake Carnarvon’s Egypt for Sadat’s. These are two very different nations.

In the microcosm, the places of home, neighbourhood, region all have very specific ways of acting upon character even when the character isn’t aware of it. But the writer absolutely must be. The custom subdivision built in the sixties, wide of lawn and deep of yard with little or new landscaping and fewer mature trees differs greatly both in appearance and character from the elm-canopied neighbourhood of packed wartime tract housing already in decline or in the  process of gentrification. Where the neighbourhood is situated, too, changes everything. In the shadow of industry with stacks belching smoke and filth; in the heart of a cultural pocket; surrounded by low-income housing; on the water; next to a highway. Without the urban beehive, no Willy Loman or Biff could have carried such power as characters. But it was an urban beehive filtered through the lens of Miller’s politics, the family’s relationship with wealth and the loss of wealth, and the Depression. A character’s self-assessment, potential, threats, challenges all arise from what surrounds them. Who constitutes the family, the neighbours and neighbourhood? Professionals? Blue collar labourers? Welfare recipients? A specific cultural group? Are the houses self-owned or rented, or boarding houses crowded with the disenfranchised, the forgotten? How does character communicate with that world, and what does it communicate to character?

The writer brings a personal world-view or agenda to place, as does character; it’s likely they may never truly be discrete so in what ways, then, does the writer’s real world (mis)understanding of place affect and afflict the articulation of fictional place?  How are professionals characterized, or the wealthy, or labourers and working class? How are women portrayed? Is it a patriarchal point of view, or post-feminist (and does it matter?). What about race, or difference in the broader lexicon of social exclusion? Is one group villified, and another idealized? Is it even possible to engage in an honest discourse about difference through fiction?

Not all place is bolstered by great historical events. Few of us are ever right in the stew of historical moment; rather, it happens in our peripheral vision. What we’re left with is the personal historical moment. It’s the reality that pushes and pulls us. It’s what surrounds the real plot of our lives, and our characters’ lives.

So when I write about research, I’m really referencing place.

There is one word that must be utterly familiar to any serious writer to achieve meaningful place: archives. Newspaper, national, municipal, library. If you are writing and you have never buried yourself in any archives you’ll find your writing suffering for it. It means your default is the generic and the general. It’s noplace, and if you’re hanging your literary hat on noplace your writing will probably go nowhere. Fast. Only if you’re situating a story in a place you know intimately, in a time frame through which you lived, can you escape the need for a background database. Even so, nobody can recall life all that accurately so a newspaper archive should still be part of the writing process. Again, as mentioned in other posts, the majority of all this backdrop might not necessarily form the story or make it to the written page, but it absolutely informs the narrative as a whole.

If you’re lucky, Google Archive or Ancestry or Paper of Record will have your local paper digitized and accessible. Google Archive, now buried in its main search page, is free although some of the newspapers available in the search results are fee-per-use. Paper of Record is fee-based, as is Ancestry except through libraries. Any public library will have certain newspapers on microfilm; many newspapers now offer free or fee-based access to digitized archives; access to local library or municipal archives is free. All it takes is a phone call to the resident archivist and time, plus costs for copying if needed. Taking notes by hand is the cheap alternative.

What’s happening in your fictionverse can and should be influenced by real-time events. Labour strikes and the Red Menace; the Beatles; free love and AIDS and faith; war; politics and fundamentalism; give a hoot, don’t pollute; grunge; department store closures; restaurants and bars that were everyone’s favourite hangout.

Are you writing about poverty but don’t know what wages were for a particular job, or what people received on welfare, or how much milk or bread cost at the time, or how much someone might spend on booze and cigarettes each week?

Did an historical blizzard shut the region down that year but your characters never seem to have noticed? Did an airline crash ten yards from your character’s neighbourhood? Was there a deep recession at that time? Was it booming? How did the newspapers deal with social issues in your character’s city? Was it the spring when thousands of fish mysteriously died? Who was murdered? Were police corrupt? What kinds of natural events took place during your narrative time frame? Tornado, Storm of the Century, flood, purple loostrife, kudzu?

It’s not just news. It’s street maps and insurance maps and blueprints and old photos.  It’s the letters and diaries of local citizens that provide ghostly voices from the past, telling us what people were thinking, how they addressed one another, the quirks and oddities of speech, daily living and habits.  It’s the real elements of life. Write characters into a working framework of place where fiction and fact melt seamlessly into your unique fictional world. To do otherwise is like putting a ball in play for a pinball game without paddles and bumpers and kickers and slingshots and holes, then wondering why the game is a failure. Give characters a playfield.

Events don’t pull the story along, it’s the character’s engagement with them. Writers who try to fake their way through can’t produce outstanding fiction; too many readers know better. How can characters relate within a fictional environment if the writer doesn’t provide an accurate, credible, workable, and living place? It’s the very mapwork of fiction. It’s the difference between an ink-sketched here be monsters version of Terra Incognita versus a satellite-accurate topography; the difference between a still photo and a dynamic Streetview perspective; caricature, or Rembrandt.

As human beings we are all formed in the crucible of place, from family to world events. Give your characters the same gift. Place them, in every sense of the word. Set your characters in motion within this world and they will begin to respond. They will come unstuck from the purgatory of noplace and start going somewhere.

God is in the details, and so is great writing.

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Filed under Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing