Fighting Yourself

I recently came across an intriguing observation: “The curse is not that you are given a destiny, it's that you make your own destiny.” It made me think of a number of novels written by fledgling writers in which the lead character proceeds on a single track all book long, almost like a wooden toy train. He has been imagined as a certain type, and he does not deviate from type.

Life is full of contradictions, though. Consider that in a literary novel, the main question is how the lead character can overcome herself. Her obstacles are largely of her own making. We all know that a character-driven book is more literary than a plot-driven one. So, how come those protagonists spend so much time wrestling with their own demons?

Unless you have formal training in being a writer, you’re probably better off starting with a plot-driven book. You decide on a certain core of defining characteristics for your hero: he’s hard-bitten, abs-packing, gunshy with women, or whatever. That’s the way he acts most of the time. Yet if he never leaves the track you put him on, he will remain a monolith—guarded from the reader by the traits you insist on maintaining.

We all have weaknesses: drink, net surfing, knee-popping exercise, etc. We are tempted to do wrong, and we often fall, for reasons we don’t understand. The deficits run the gamut from the petty—filching Halloween candy from the bowl—to book-long dilemmas, such as fighting off the powerful attraction of a former lover while staying true to the new one.

You cannot be satisfied merely with a situation. That is a one-time event, soon forgotten by the reader amid the tumult of plotting. When we make a mistake, we can be exposed for it. A single word said the wrong way can have repercussions that continue to spiral downward. The fight to stay on track enriches a portrait while the plot is delivering the excitement.

Exercise: Pick a guilty secret the protagonist has. Now sketch out several strings of scenes. If the secret is discovered by a spouse, how can the heroine recover her standing? If the secret is found out by a friend, how does that affect their relationship? If an enemy, how can it be used to blackmail the heroine? Don’t commit yourself to any of them until you explore all the delicious possibilities.

“From separation and loss, I have learned a lot. I have become strong and resilient, as is the case of almost every human being exposed to life and to the world. We don't even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward.”
—Isabel Allende

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Swirling in Orbit

After I learned of the death of William Trevor last week, I picked up a volume of his short stories, After Rain, I had on my shelf. He was a master of intimate, pinpoint details that evoke so much about a life in a limited number of pages. His ability to extrapolate from a central concept is unique, but the principles of the practice can be followed by anyone.

Let’s take a concept similar to the blindness he uses in “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: deafness. If you were to write about a character who suffers from a loss of hearing, what qualities would that character possess? You can, of course, pick stone deafness, but that seems overly restrictive. There are plenty of gradations along the way, as many older people can attest.

One question to ask is: how does deafness affect a character socially? You can imagine that he does a lot of pretending he heard, but he is really looking at others for cues for when, say, to laugh. Maybe he prefers solitude, i.e., the absence of having to try to hear. He might be drawn to reading, because that is a form of communication he can enjoy without a struggle.

The condition could determine the friends she chooses. She can hear people with loud voices, while she might despise people who mumble. Her older sister probably developed a loud voice in order to talk to her deaf sibling. And how about a father who once spoke loudly, but with the strain of old age speaks in soft tones? How annoying is that for her? She can’t even hear her own dad.

What are the conditions under which a deaf person feels uncomfortable? You can imagine a dinner table at which others wax more wittily as each new round of wine is served. But why is the deaf one silent? It’s because he can’t hear voices over the sounds of his chewing food. Or consider what happens when he buys a hearing aid. Put him at a party, where the aid picks up the voice of some loud s.o.b. nearby that he’s not talking to. Is he likely to pigeonhole someone in the hallway to the bathroom, where it is quieter?

You see, Trevor’s multifaceted brilliance stemmed in part from sitting back and considering what attributes would best cohere around a central core. If you follow the principle that we all try to hide our deficits, to fit in with some group, then all of the constellation of personality choices revolve around issues the reader will understand.

Exercise: A person who is born with a hearing loss will likely have her entire personality shaped by her deficit. How does she compensate in order to be regarded as normal? Is she overly aggressive with others, trying too hard to impress? Does she dress more sharply, hiding the drawback she feels inside?

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Evolving the Concept

At the beginning of a novel is an idea, something you would like to write about. Some writers start with a striking character, others with a compelling issue. If the issue is the germ, that needs to be quickly married with thoughts about the characters populating that drama.

Let’s take a popular issue in 2016: the Standing Rock protest against the North Dakota-Illinois oil pipeline. The tale of brave Sioux tribes people standing up against the scheming U.S. government is an American legend. The theft of treaty land, police use of concussion grenades and water cannons, the tents huddled against snow drifts—all these evoke the modern enactment of Wounded Knee.

You start to research the topic, and you find articles about the Sioux chairman and the county sheriff and the number of pipeline leaks country-wide, etc. It becomes apparent that the local white folks and red folks don’t like each other at all. Yet all of this is background noise, really. You need persons, not people.

Further research into the Sioux today turns up the fact that a high percentage of those on the reservation are alcoholics. That’s not surprising, considering the crappy reservation land given to them. If you are thinking in terms of character, though, you need to move beyond passive reader to active thinker. What if: a man in his thirties who has lost his family through his drinking binges suddenly seizes upon the protest as his way to redeem himself? What if everybody around him—who know him very well—jeer at things he says to Eastern news reporters? What about the white cop who has arrested him upteen times and thrown him in the drunk tank overnight?

That’s where fiction lives—the personal conflicts within the wider conflict. No matter how popular the issue, you still have to do the hard work of digging into a life deep enough to reveal the character’s emotions. That’s the only way the freezing water from the fire engine hose will truly sting the reader. If you want a phoenix to rise out of the ashes, what do the ashes look like?

Exercise: If you can quickly pick out 3-4 characters you’d like to write about, you can assign bits to them as you do your research. For instance, who is the real person behind the interview? Maybe you cast that in an ironic context. Or, maybe the words she speaks are her final redemption. Research facts are background until you assign a personal quality to them.

“Highly organized research is guaranteed to produce nothing new.”
—Frank Herbert

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.