The Lightness of Strangers

Authors searching for a new way to create a unique character need look no further than someone who is disaffected from society. The nonconformist is willing to flout the rules. If pushed far enough, that character can drop out of society, eschewing the 9-to-5 in favor of noble poverty. For some, that opens the door for encountering the lower class, for whom nobility may be an entirely spurious term. So the hero can also make distinctions that way: unwashed but not unlovable.

While the character can remain in one place the entire novel, such a choice is more likely found on the road, turning the book into a journey novel. That rite of passage is routed through the underbelly of, let’s say, America, and that leads out West many times. Wide-open spaces, plenty of alone time for the maverick to think about how people in general are deplorable, or whatever the theme is.

The problem with a novel constructed this way, unless the author is able to write consistently well about the character’s thoughts, is that an isolated stranger ends up bouncing through a series of random encounters. He doesn’t know anybody; he doesn’t even like people. That creates a severe difficulty when we are a species that likes to congregate. No man is an island, if for no other reason that we measure ourselves against others. I’m a maverick precisely because I know what all those other jerks are doing—and I’m better than that.

The encounters with others prove to be superficial exercises. Even joining a gang of reprobates provides little warmth, because the newcomer is still an outsider on trial. The author is left with virtually only one choice: meeting another down-and-outer and falling in love. Such a bond, with neither character rooted, could bloom into a fragile gift, but the guy could just as likely go on a bender and the gal says, forget him.

If the romance road is not taken, the last remaining avenue is intermingling the skin-deep present with memories of the character’s past. That strategy has pitfalls of its own. For one, if the stories in the past are more involving, the reader won’t want to return to the aimless present. For another, we already know the outcome of all those memories: the drifter in the present. The worst possibility, however, is that the author may narrate the past stories more distantly, telling us in hindsight rather than showing us in the present. So the novel becomes more dominated by secondhand storytelling. It makes you long for the bounties of a tale set around the kitchen table.

Exercise: If you are finding the past more compelling than the present in your manuscript, see if you can devise ways to bring characters from the past, or their analogues, into the present during the second half of the book. At some point the present has to take over the reins in this construction, so you might as well lay the groundwork.

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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