What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.

Review: El-Mohtar & Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War

This book has been on my TBR list for a while. So when I hied myself over to my branch library to renew my card and saw it on the shelf, I checked it out. (Disappointingly, several books I had hoped to put holds on are not in the system. Obviously I’m going to have to put a second string to my bow and sign up for a JoCo account.)

I admit, a big selling point for the book was the fact that it’s small. (Again with the ways in which I am not the reader Author Me is looking for.) I didn’t realize the book was actually a novella; if I wanted to be That Bitch I would check the word count and issue Commentary on how 50k words is not ten thousand words too many to be considered a novella, So There. But eh, who has time for that. Time War is, pretty clearly, a novella; it has no wasteful digressions, no overblown prose, no jags where there ought to be jigs. I read it in the same afternoon, with time left over for a nap.

I gave it the same four stars on Goodreads that I give to other excellent books, but I didn’t write a review of it there because I wasn’t actually sure what I thought about it. And — I still don’t. The back jacket cover is full of blurbs giving a kind of praise I’ve never seen before — I think Gerard Manley Hopkins was name-checked at one point, which you definitely don’t see every day — and none of it was stuff I thought about the book, but I thought it plausible that someone else might think it.

The story, you would think, hits my Enemies Who Love Each Other kink whang in the gold. Not quite: the two time soldiers in this story fall in love as enemies and continue in their duties even after they’ve acknowledged their secret and forbidden love; but it wasn’t quite the specific non-romantic love of enemy for enemy that I hunger for so much. Close, though; as close as things usually get.

I think the book both stands and falls on its thoroughgoing commitment to discorporealized action. Or…dyscorporealized action, in some instances. Like Charles Williams (honestly he’s much more my go-to comparable than GMH for this), the actions these time soldiers take, the letters they write, happen in an almost metaphysical realm, the synapses between thoughts, between beats of the heart. The story is written and lived in interstitial, intercostal spaces; the reveal of the seeker-shadow is a fulfillment rather than a bucking of its trope; for all the main characters tell one another about their physical lives, those lives are conducted at a far remove from anything we experience. Possibly the most anchoring thing in the book is the occasional allusion to memes of our time — I laughed when I encountered the reference to “I’m in ur base killing ur doods.” Do kids these days know that meme?

Trying to get a critical grasp on this story, I noticed that it’s written in tight-third, present tense POV — a perspective tailor-made for this kind of story; or vice versa. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment when I say it’s like fanfiction pieces written by the best practitioners of that perspective. But tight-third present tense perspective became popular among fic writers precisely because it is so handy for invoking this dreamlike sense of immediacy, and — if you have the chops for it — providing the bevels needed for imagistic wordplay and incantatory style.

This stylistic choice is not just popular in the realm of fanfiction, but when you find it out in the wild it’s usually in literary fiction. I suspect that reviewers have a Pavlovian response to encountering this style, which is to tag it as having high literary merit whether it does or not. But that’s not El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s fault. Their book does everything it does in good faith, and in the end I suppose that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

But the thing I liked best about the book, the thing that filled all those resonant spaces in my heart whenever I pick up a story looking for Escape in Tolkien’s sense, was the last line of the acknowledgments section at the back. El-Mohtar and Gladstone clearly mean their book to be an act of resistance, as all real art is in times like these, and the last thing they have to say about it — and the last thing I have to say about it — is this:

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re all still here.

Trajectories

Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.

Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.

However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.

So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.

This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.

But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.

Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.

Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.

At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.

A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.

Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.

Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.

Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.

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* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Advent calendar wrap-up: The Cold Open

Well, it looks like I fell at the final hurdles when it comes to posting every day for Advent. The weekend saw me holed up at home, writing — a scene sequence for The Lantern Tower chapter six, and then the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday. After that, there wasn’t much that felt urgent enough to put into a blog post, so I let it lie.

Sunday evening I went out for tacos and margaritas with one of my book club friends, who had been doing a great deal to help our mutual friend with household tasks and errands before she moved to hospice. We talked of mortality, of giving care, of the ways love and faith manifest at times like this.

Then I wrote some more, because that’s what there was to do.

This wasn’t one of the weeks where it’s immediately apparent what I’m going to write about for my sermon. Sometimes that happens: sometimes there’s something going on in the world or the country or the life of our community that connects with the readings with a neat little snap, and I ruminate the content and the structure and then finally compose the thing at least 24 hours before I deliver it.

And then sometimes there are occasions when, despite knowing weeks in advance when I’m preaching and what the texts are, I fumble until the very last minute before it’s time to shower and dress and leave for the church. Yet it’s not usually the exegesis or the relevant insights that’s the problem; I get plenty of help in that department, if not from on high then at least from teachers and commentators.

No, the problem is usually the cold open.

Every sermon needs a cold open: an image, a quotation, an anecdote, a narrative, or a concept that sets the tone and theme for what people are about to hear. Without it, frankly, the likelihood of your hearers giving a shit goes down exponentially. Many preachers content themselves with telling a joke and then taking advantage of the indulgent goodwill that follows in its wake; this is a strategy that usually annoys me to listen to, not least because a good many of these jokes are of the kind of gendered humor that only the het couples in the room are likely to enjoy. Not being a member of a het couple, my expectations of any relevance to come drop sharply.

A really good cold open is something you can call back to throughout the sermon; it doesn’t have to be Serious but it ought to be memorable, and be able to make the serious things memorable too. And from the writer’s point of view, it makes articulating those serious things possible. It filters out what isn’t coherent and gives you a thread to pull when you’re working through the rest of the structure.

Until I have a cold open, I can’t start.

The cold open is essential to sermon-writing because a sermon is a short composition that won’t benefit from a complicated structure, and a simple structure falls apart without a driving image. But something like a cold open works for long forms too. A novel’s prologue often functions that way: or the first scene if there isn’t a prologue. Sometimes the author leads off with an epigraph to set the tone. None of these strategies guarantees being good or effective, but the instinct for using them is the same: what one thing is this piece of writing going to be about? Here’s the essential clue.

But at times like this, coming up with a cold open for a sermon, or a first line for a chapter, is easy. It’s mediating the relationship between that writing and the context of daily life that’s hard. It’s trying to say something definite while being caught up in a liminal space.

Which is probably why there’s not a cold open for this post.

So, my best wishes to all for your holiday. Lights shine upon you.

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.

All the news that’s fit to print

Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It’s been rather busy chez moi, as my work has just concluded their fall conference here in town. A lot of rolling out of bed at Oh My God It’s Early, putting on actualfax makeup, and tooling downtown in my nice work clothes in the pre-dawn, then dragging back to trip over the kitty at sundown. It’s a lot of work, but it is fun to see our members at these things. One conference down, one more to go before the year’s end.

Meanwhile, I decided to move on from storyboarding to actual work on the sequel to Ryswyck, which I’m calling The Lantern Tower. I have the first chapter finished and the second chapter started. When I’m working on a project, there’s sort of a breathing rhythm between my efforts to nail down an outline of the plot with lists of scenes and sketches of dialogue, and points at which I have to just start writing to draw down the pressure and provoke more insight. I’ll probably write until I hit a sticking place, let it percolate, and turn back to editing Household Lights, which I hope to get out next spring. It’s not really multitasking; it’s sequence tasking. I loathe multitasking both as a concept and as a requirement: I mean, does anybody really thrive on doing five things at once with equal quality? Don’t tell me if you do.

Anyway, some things about The Lantern Tower. I’ll be introducing two new viewpoint characters and changing POVs on a couple of others. I’ve already got some scenes sketched, and have organized the movements into roughly five short acts. And boy am I glad I siphoned off the opening sequence for Household Lights — that first chapter was a hell of a lot easier to write without dragging that weight.

There’ll be fencing, both literal and metaphorical, court intrigue, spycraft, love, hate, kissing, fightin’ words, secrets, reluctant partnerships, a dash of hurt/comfort, and of course beloved enemies. I wouldn’t tell myself a story without that!

So that’s the state of the state. Now, I must sally forth to get some goodies for the concert my church is hosting. Carry on, as you were, &c.

More thoughts about character

In my last post I had to get my snark on about character as an ideological flashpoint. But there’s a lot more to say about character as a key to good writing, and how one actually goes about forming a fictional character.

Now, I’ve read my share of writing advice, books and articles either by writers I admire or by writers I know little about. Following Lois Bujold on Goodreads recently led me to a blog post by Patricia Wrede, which keyed into something that I’ve long thought about writing character — and that is that character, like any other element of writing, is a gestalt function.

I think writers are too often tempted to talk about characters as if they have the same kind of agency functionally as they do in the plot — or at least as if they should. But I think they’re two different things. In the plot, yes, we want our characters to do things and not always have things being done to them; we want our characters to want things rather than take on the coloring of the situation around them all the time.

But functionally speaking, characters are affected by what surrounds them and who they interact with. As a color changes its perceived hue when framed by red and when framed by blue, any character’s personality is deeply affected by who they’re surrounded with. That’s the way it should be: after all, it’s how we are in real life. It’s one reason I’ve always been frustrated with personality tests. I could test myself out as an INFP, but throw me in a room with a bunch of other INFPs and ask us to choose a place to go out to dinner — and I’ll probably be one of the first people to go OH MY GOD JUST MAKE A DECISION. I tortured myself with the Enneagram one afternoon: “I’m not purely any of these types, and if I were, I wouldn’t interact with such-and-such type like that.”

As Wrede says, we want to discern the pattern, get it settled, and move on, whether testing for personality types or inventing fictional characters. But it’s never that simple and there is no order of operations for putting together a piece of fiction. Most of my stories start with a kernel of a scene, an incomplete interaction between two characters. Developing it involves asking myself questions: how do I justify this situation? Whose presence offstage is exerting influence on it? Who is that person and what would the situation be like if they were actually present? And as I ask more of these questions and begin to answer them, the kernel situation begins to change in its turn. I realize that no amount of world-manipulation will justify this or that aspect; or I decide that what I want out of the scene has mutated; or, inevitably, the character I invented for the purposes of the situation is not going to cooperate with my plans for them.

That’s always a gratifying moment. When a character begins to resist what I want to do to them and starts taking their cue from the situation I’ve developed them in, that’s when I know that I haven’t just constructed a lifeless figure. O mortal, prophesy to the breath. And then the breath prophesies back.

All the same, technical decisions do need to be made. A character of any significance in a story needs to have a trajectory of some kind. The situation isn’t staying the same; they shouldn’t either. After all, they’re going to be part of any reason the situation changes. A character is strong and unassailable: what kind of thing would make them not so? A character is inclined to hide: what would it take to force them out of avoidance mode? A character is a caretaker personality: what about this situation would complicate and mature their sense of compassion? Say all three of these characters are in the situation together: how would the situation change depending on which of them moves first? Do I like that, or would I like it better if another character is the one to move first?

I was talking with Erica about an edit she wanted to make to her current manuscript, and we noted that depending on where the new event falls in the existing series of events, it’s going to change certain scenes where particular characters interact; it would make those scenes about something else. Could be interesting, she remarked; but do I want to sacrifice the positive things in the scenes as they exist for that? For the time that these changes are contemplated, the story is a Schrodinger’s box, with all possible scenarios coexisting until the decision collapses them. Rather apropos for a time-travel story, but it works for other things too.

For me, that’s what it means to say that character is plot. In the gestalt that is a developing story, characters push and are pushed, they pull and are pulled. The “realer” they are, the more agile they will be in the situation, the more tensile. It’s not just that a character needs to act: it’s that they need to embody a justifiable response to the situation in which they find themselves. That’s an embodiment that transcends type, as we transcend the findings of a personality test.

From there, when it gets to the point of putting words on a page, it becomes a series of decisions about how to introduce, describe, and employ the perspective of the characters I’ve developed. Would this scene say the right thing about a character if it is written from their perspective, or should I use a different POV character to show what they’re doing/feeling? Do I want to play this trope to the hilt or push back on it? How much of the character’s inner thoughts should imbue the narrative of this scene?

And then there are the foundational scenes, scenes whose dialogue I’ve worked out almost from the beginning; when it comes time to actually write them down, it’s a perilous and exhilarating moment. Does it feel as right as it did in my head? We shall see.

And then there’s the fun of talking about one’s characters with beta readers. Post-structuralists be damned, it’s fun to discuss our characters as if they were real people. I’ll jump on any excuse. And I suppose that’s what I felt the need to add to my snarky blog of the other day. Characters, almost more than any other element of the art, make writing fun. And the more mimetic power you have and use, the funner it is.

And that, as Edith Ann says, is the truth.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.

Perspective in fiction: part three in a series

So, some time back I started writing blog posts in response to themes in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Then — you know, life — I lost momentum on it. But the other day I found myself on a website devoted to helping writers of speculative fiction, and read a couple of articles on the teasing subject of POV choice, and it reminded me of this chapter of Alter’s book, which was the chapter I found the most insightful of all of them, and which has borne a lot of influence on how I think about the question of perspective.

In fact, I recommend Alter’s book on the strength of this chapter alone, because among other things he takes the trouble to sketch the history of narratology both as practiced by writers and examined by critics. I can’t do justice to the entirety of his argument, so for this post I’ll just tackle two of his points: 1) That “the proliferation of narrative theory has brought with it a sometimes bewildering proliferation of competing views and terminologies,” which tends to garble both how we evaluate what we read and how we advise people to write, and 2) that “there is no hierarchy of narrative perspectives” and that great writing flows from an author’s choices of innovating or nuancing the “fluctuating play” of perspective, which gives “experiential depth and conceptual complexity” to the reader’s experience of the text.

Though I have lasting memories of graduate seminars in which diagrams and boxes were drawn (in chalk, because I am An Old) of narratological frameworks, the most sustained discussion of perspective and authorial choice I’ve encountered is in the arena of fanfiction. One reason for this is pretty obvious: the source text, the “canon,” of a book or TV show or film, has already got an array of established perspectives which the fanwork creator can either hew closely toward, or diverge from. Part of the pleasure, or lack of it, in reading and writing fanworks is to weigh the comparison with the source: is the author trying to match the canon? are they taking a different viewpoint of the same events? does the invention of an original character add perspective to the ‘verse?

Naturally, in an environment where lots of fiction is being written and read, there are undulating trends, and discussions of craft to go with them. For a long time, there was a prevailing trend of writing fanworks in tight third-person POV using the present tense — a trend which may parallel similar trends in modern original fiction, but in both cases was influenced by a small number of very skilled writers who used this perspective to great effect. The trend was and is so strong that in one of the articles on the site I linked above, the author actually recommended sticking to a close third-person perspective, as it was easier to master and also more desirable than “distant” third-person in terms of vivid and immediate wordcraft.

I…don’t agree with either of those assertions, and never have. Where to start? I guess I should start with what I absorbed as a young writer imitating different styles. I don’t remember reading a lot of tight-third stories, or at least not ones I wanted to emulate. What I read were stories with an omniscient narrator (Watership Down) and first-person narrators (To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn). Though I wasn’t attracted to tight-third perspective per se, the principle behind it certainly had its influence: namely, that really good fiction drew the reader into an encompassing reality, a world with immediacy, in which author intrusion was minimal.

Now, Richard Adams is so good that it was years before I noticed he’d written my favorite book in omni. And in part that was because he conceived the narrator of that story as a voice and perspective just as present as the rabbits whose journey he was following. But for the twentieth century it was an old-fashioned approach. The real cutting edge then was experimental perspectives that completely filled the frame and excluded the author-as-narrator to the greatest extent possible — Virginia Woolf, maybe, or James Joyce. Good writing became synonymous with that particular kind of immediacy, even bewilderment, that the reader was meant to share with the focal perspective of the text.

(Here’s a reason to read this chapter of Alter’s book if nothing else. He examines a passage of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — a book on the Edwardian Lit seminar syllabus that I did not enjoy, unlike The Man Who Was Thursday — and teases out the nuances of the perspective in a single pivotal paragraph, something that is not simply reportage or contextual storytelling or locked-in psychological sequence, but a threading of three needles at once. Alter reveals that one paragraph as a tour de force, and nails down his point that perspective is not a spreadsheet or a schematic. Gave me a better appreciation of Conrad’s abilities, too.)

I didn’t get much success with trying to write first-person narratives — an abandoned novel project and any number of first pages that never went anywhere. When I began to write fanfiction, however, I experimented with a perspective style I called “wide-angle” third (and which the Mythcreants author termed “distant” third — ye gods, the pejorative!) — and grew increasingly confident using it. I found it especially useful writing stories with an ensemble cast, using multiple POVs. Now, you can write ensemble casts in tight third POV, and a lot of people do. But for my purposes, I found it extremely useful for writing, say, Buffy Summers without having to present her thoughts as well as her dialogue in her inimitable voice. Especially if I was writing a story that also included the POV perspective of Giles, whose voice is, well, different. Too, I was writing stories with lots of angst, and there’s nothing worse for an angsty story than too much on-the-nose emoting. A wide-angle perspective, I reasoned, could give a reader the whole picture at any given time, without actually delving into omni.

I liked this so much that I actually went back to my first-person novel project and started it over with a wide-angle third perspective. It worked enough to reveal to me the real problem with the story, which was that it required some heavy research I didn’t care enough to do. So the story is still mothballed, but I feel less bad about it.

So, having written five hundred thousand words of fic (in one fandom) using wide-angle third, and having bridled at all the fandom praise being lavished on the opposite approach — and then getting over it, as one does — I was more or less free to consider what I wanted for my original fiction, with less arbitrary inward constraint or pressure of outward trends. For Ryswyck, I felt for and found a set of filters that would accommodate five very different POVs, which allowed for a bit more unabashed narration, especially when I wasn’t opening a scene with dialogue. Almost one of my first decisions in framing early drafts was to take a cinematic approach — or, something that would correspond to a cinematic approach if the story were being filmed: jump cuts, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, repeated motifs: Speir being served a cup of tea on an artillery platform followed in the next scene by Douglas reaching for his cup on the desk — things that don’t have to be noticed, and are less apt to be noticed in a text medium, but which keep the eyeline steady from scene to scene.

And here’s a thing I miss about the old fandom venues: fic memes like “DVD commentaries,” in which the author of a fic interpolates comments on the process of a particular scene or story, including POV choices. It’s nice to discover (or tell) just what kind of on-purpose things a writer has done to achieve their effects.

Which brings me to the principle that undergirds all that I’ve learned about writing in the last twenty years. As a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor I used to tell students, “You have to know the rules to break them successfully,” and along with that goes its corollary: You can break almost any rule so long as you do it on purpose. That is — as the result of a decision process you came to about what would work better than any other technique in a given situation. This serves Alter’s larger point about how literary art is both craft and art, which can provide a reader with challenge and enjoyment, can speak to and evoke recognizable reality. If I were teaching now, I’d want my students to know something about the wider goals of using perspective, even as I drilled them on the disciplines of different perspective choices: how a take-six feels in the fencer’s hand, on the way to knowing without discursive thought when to use it in a bout.

Once you’ve encompassed that, the piste is wherever you say it is.