So much of modern cinema and fiction revolves around the anti-hero and the sympathetic villain. Our culture seems to need our protagonists to be damaged or troubled in some way. It’s as if in some grand pursuit of Nietzsche’s rejection of absolutes, we can only accept shades of gray. Those moral shades of gray are particularly represented when authors elect to take villainous or marginalized characters and bring them to the forefront by writing their stories. While childhood stories clearly draw the line between good and bad, it becomes murkier as we age. Be it experience or expectations, we want more than the Big Bad Wolf or the Mustache Twirling Fiend. Telling a baddie’s story is one way to achieve that complexity.
Last week, I received a fiction pitch I knew I would reject a few lines in. It contained the phrase, “after he discovers a family secret long since buried.” (Or something like that.) I wrote back to the author and admitted that I was passing because, while other people might like books about that, I’m not a guy who was ever eager to read a book with that at the center. It’s a very, very common conceit, but I guess I figure that if the secret itself was really interesting, you’d be telling us what it is. If the family secret was that your main character’s grandmother was Einstein’s lover, dollars to donuts the novel would be called Einstein’s Lover.
This writer had an interesting approach to telling a story, but all the rest of the details beyond the secret were mundane. This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town. He seemed like a good, clever writer, but he’d sabotaged his book from the start by writing something with a generic elevator pitch. To get an editor to read it, I would have to promise this author was the best stylist I’d ever come across.
That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was this article in Salon by novelist Ted Thompson, where he reveals what he found most surprising from having his debut novel published. All of the ideas he discussed are dead-on and useful, but the most important one is that, no matter how good your book is, people still judge it by how you answer the question, “So what’s your book about?”
What he doesn’t say is that there’s one way to answer that question that could take your book from the rejection pile to the bestseller list, and it isn’t about the plot.
“But rather, what the devil am I going to do with you?”
In John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the unnamed narrator poses this question to himself about the character sleeping before him. Only he isn’t just the narrator; he’s much more than that. He’s part of a group of fictional writers I’ll call Fiction Benders—characters and narrators who bend the rules of narrative.
The Benders differ from editorial omniscience, sly narratorial commentary, or the ever popular unreliable narrator. Instead, the Benders elevate authorial interference and self-reflexiveness to a new level. Stranger than Fiction, the quirky-in-a-good-way comedy starring Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell, features Thompson as a writer narrating and dictating Ferrell’s world. Or consider Adaptation, in which Nicholas Cage plays twin brothers trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. The real twist? Screenwriter Charlie Kauffman made up a fictional co-writing twin brother who is listed in the credits. Call it silly, call it meta: I call it brilliant.
One of the perks of working in academia is ordering desk copies of books. While more often than not these things are tedious tomes that would put me to sleep, never mind my students, sometimes I happen upon gems, such as The Twentieth-Novel: An Introduction by R.B. Kershner. I’ll admit I don’t remember ordering this book; I think in my book ordering frenzy, I had some sort of black out. Thankfully I did order it, if just for Kershner’s description of fiction: “an elaborate and sustained falsehood.”
With pretense stripped away, fiction is a well-crafted lie. A beautiful, artistic, transcendent lie, but a lie whatever the adjective. Thus, writers are the fabricators, the prevaricators, the weavers of dazzling deceptions. It’s not surprising then that every couple of years, we get a movie or television show where the plot spins a literal take on writers as liars. The Words is probably the most mainstream recent work, but even shows like American Dad and Law & Order: SVU have twisted plots around these writers we’ll call the Bamboozlers. These stories address through their characters many themes which are familiar to real writers: originality, success, ownership, image, integrity, and perseverance.
Bamboozler stories have two primary forms. The first usually centers on a fictitious struggling writer (the Plagiarist) who takes credit for another writer’s work. The second finds a talented writer (the Obscure) who must, for whatever plot reason, find an avatar (the Front) for public consumption while remaining shrouded in anonymity.
Stephen King has a particular knack for fictionalizing the tortured lives of writers. Scribes of varied success people the pages of his works, from protagonists to supporting characters. (Under the Dome’s Thurston Marshall is a recent Ploughshares guest editor!) Many of these characters are also readable as Author Avatars for King. Beyond his personal struggles, his writers metaphorically and literally wrestle the demons that haunt our kind: failure, success, fleeting inspiration, fear, obsession, helplessness, frenzy, euphoria, and sometimes destruction.
Writing is a madness that creeps into us, grips us, and never releases us, even when we believe it has become dormant. It’s fitting then that King’s writers dwell in the landscape of horror and mystery where madness and fear manifest beyond their professional struggles.Continue Reading
Writers love to create writer characters, so much so that fictional writers are their own sub-character set. Maybe it’s because we understand the torture of the artistic monkey better than anything else; creating fictional writers is one way of following the adage of writing what you know. Or perhaps we make our characters writers because we like to project our writer selves into the fictional world as a way to exhaust our fantasies and exercise our demons. Our Author Avatars can do the things we as writers cannot. They can have fame and success. Likewise, they can become vessels for our worst fears—failure and self-destruction.
A few weeks ago, I was furious at someone on a level normally reserved for politics. For about three days I didn’t know how to defuse my anger; I just complained and ranted to any poor person who came within ear shot. It was eating at me, how much anger I had stored up. Despite being decidedly non-violent, I wanted to punch something, possibly the person who had set me off.
So on the evening of the third day, I sat down and wrote a flash fiction piece about punching someone in the face. It was fun and I actually felt a little bit better—particularly after I explored, in an overly descriptive paragraph, how it would feel to punch someone in the face.
It wasn’t enough, however. The anger was still there (since violence is never the answer). I felt obligated to bring this person’s flaws to light in the most unflattering way possible. The world must know every little grating inch of this person, even if they didn’t who the person was. Someone else needed to be as annoyed as I was. The problem was, angry as I felt, it seemed churlish and mean-spirited to simply call this person a spade by name in print. It might feel good for a hot minute, but it wouldn’t be satisfying in the long run.
Photo from Apartment Therapy
During the first creative writing class I ever taught, a student approached me with a particular challenge. She had a wonderful premise for a novel that revolved around a pack of women who worked in a 1970s factory in the Midwest. But even with a strong idea, she was still having trouble getting the novel off the ground. “The problem is,” she said, “that none of my characters want to do anything.” They all looked the same, acted the same, and felt the same. In essence, her characters were a chain of paper dolls. Sound familiar?
As a class, we discussed her options. The first was to introduce some kind of event that would force her otherwise reluctant characters to react. The second choice (which was not mutually exclusive from the first) was to differentiate her characters. The act of character differentiation is two-fold. Characters must be distinct not only from each other, but from you—the author—as well. If you think of your characters as puppets, you’ll sentence them to behaving only as you would.
So how does a character gain her independence? Character templates are a good place to start, but the true story begins when these people have to act and interact. Character breeds plot, not the other way around. The better we are at character differentiation, the better we’ll be at writing the best plot. Let’s consider a few examples.
In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rose Waldman, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor
Like many emerging writers, I had become resigned to soulless “Thank you for your submission” rejection letters. But amidst a succession of form rejections, I finally got a personal note. It began with some kind words about the story I’d submitted, and then came the but: “Unfortunately, we felt that the characters needed to be filled in a bit more…”
I analyzed this editor’s words as if they’d come from an oracle’s mouth. Determined to “fill in my characters,” I printed out the story and painstakingly underlined each word, phrase or sentence that appeared to be highlighting the character’s, well… character. I made bulleted lists of each character’s attributes; her/his backstories, hobbies, and idiosyncrasies.
Armed with my lists and my marked-up story, I approached Sheila Heti, with whom I was then taking a class called “What is a character?” She read the editor’s note and glanced at my red-marked story. “Rose,” she said, “I don’t think the editor is interested in more characteristics; I think she just wants the character to feel more honest.”
People sometimes talk about a lightbulb moment, and this was mine.Continue Reading