Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

The task of characterization is multi-faceted. The classic advice says to make your protagonist “likable.” Enough literary evidence exists to negate that claim. I’m reading Lolita right now and I hate Humbert Humbert.

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I think you can shuck “likable” and instead focus on “relatable.”

I’m going to focus on Lolita in a future post, but for now I’ll raise the question: is Humbert Humbert relatable? Despite being a monster, he seems aware of his own monstrosity– which is why we hate him. He knows better and he continues to act in his deplorable self-interest. While Humbert lays down a lot of unreliable justifications for his behavior, there is a steady thrum of self-loathing under-riding his confession. Humbert hates himself as much as the reader, and that’s what makes that book, ultimately, readable.

I’ll focus on the question: how do you affect relatability in fiction?

The classic advice is to give your character’s an Achille’s heel. No one wants to read about invincible characters. Superman is the classic example of a character so strong, the writers had to contrive a series of convolutions to make him vulnerable, which usually made him seem more improbable and cartoonish. The Watchmen had a clever take on the Superman surrogate, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, by rooting his story in his depersonalization– he distances himself to the point that he no longer can empathize with the human beings he protects and sees their struggle as merely a problem with cold and precise solutions.

It’s in that psychological development that the reader can, ironically, relate to Manhattan. Everyone’s gotten so sick of all of the terrible things that human beings inflict on each other that they retreat from society for a while– there’s a reason people vacation on solitary beaches and stare at nothing for hours on end, the same way Manhattan disappears to Mars and creates intricate statues (for lack of a better term) that have been unfouled by man.

But to the point I’m driving at, relatability becomes more intriguing when you expose the character’s psychological insecurities, instead of their physical limitations. In Sin City, the badass Marv takes a moment of pause, crying along a bridge when he realizes the scope of the evil he’s dealing with. In David Wong’s John Dies at the End, the character of David Wong takes a moment to reflect on his own fragile masculinity in a moment of weakness only hinted at previously. Silence of the Lambs takes this notion and applies a meta-literary tactic of Dr. Lector specifically needling Starling’s insecurities out of her. Think about Harry Potter and how the fifth book underlined Harry’s hormonal dickishness to round out what had previously been a squeaky clean character.

It’s an effective device because while everyone desires the fantasy of being powerful and in control of their own world, everyone has a shadowy valley that cuts through their ego. It’s in that acknowledgement of common fear, doubt, anger, jealousy and self-detrimental habit that the reader can attach their struggle to the hero’s. And that makes the victory that much more rewarding when the hero is finally victorious.

The other major benefit of diving into psychological insecurities is that it builds the internal conflict. While not always necessary, effective pieces utilize the inner turmoil of the protagonist concurrently with the external.

Think about Fight Club which demonstrates this in a very literal sense– the protagonist has become depersonalized and spiritually vacant to the point to which he creates an alternative personality that is capable of achieving everything that the narrator cannot. Superficially, it’s a realization of one’s own potential. Cynically, it might come off as “the magic was inside you the entire time.” In a slightly deeper read, however, one remembers that everything has to do with a girl named Marla Singer. Other passages/scenes (I’m borrowing a lot from Fincher’s film adaptation) indicate a fear of forming a family– specifically the bathtub scene in which the mutual resentment of the narrator’s/Tyler’s father is redirected towards a rejection of women (finding a wife, settling down, “setting up franchises,” “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy.”); the chemical burn scene that redirects the paternal resentment into a resentment towards God (which should indicate that this resentment and fear of cyclically becoming what you resent literally rules over the narrator’s internal conflict).

Of course, there are undeniable homoerotic undertones to the story, but as far as I can tell from interviews and essays with Chuck Palahniuk, the driving motivation of the narrator is attempting to find a reconnection to the familial world. Also, because the story ends like this: once the narrator accepts his responsibility for the actions (and desires) of his shadow-self and violently cleaves him from existence (indicating the climax of a maturation plot), the narrator and Marla Singer come together, stunned at the destruction of the city scape, seemingly with the narrator finally coming to terms with his adulthood and no longer allowing his fear of his own masculinity to keep him from entering an actual relationship with a girl he fancies.

That’s the film version which, as Palahniuk admits, is thematically more complete. I haven’t read the graphic novelization that serves as the sequel, so I can’t say how that all shakes out. The point is the reason that the narrator, who’s kind of despicable and pathetic in a lot of ways, is able to maintain an effective through-line that engages the audience is that there is an internal conflict that is subtly suggested throughout the novel/film that resonates with nearly everybody in the audience. Most people, I think, harbor anxieties about the reality of becoming an adult and making the same mistakes that their parents imprinted onto them. Fight Club is able to take that and make it into a pretty radical story about punching the Christ out of your buddies and blowing up coffee shops.

And if you can find a way to sublimate your character’s deep-seated intentions in such a way to drive the external plot along? Without the reader necessarily realizing it?

Nobel prize, here you come.

 

Thems Writin’ Words

Thems Writin’ Words

It can be hard to describe literary styles. We usually fall upon metaphors and comparisons to other writers when attempting to distill tone and lyrical execution, both of which never seem to fully capture a writer’s voice. At the hazard of leaning hard on one particular metaphor, as well as hazarding the comparison to Hemingway and Norman Mailer’s non-writing interests, let’s talk about writing as fighting.

Specifically, writing as martial arts.

It’s kind of a dumb idea, but one that I want to flesh out because it allows for easily digestible, real word examples to help understand the conceptual mechanics underneath literature. And like an MMFA fighter, modern writers need a diversity of styles to balance out their stories.

So let’s break it down.

Karate was born out of necessity. It was the common farmer’s self defense against corrupt officials. It is straight to the point and eliminates any extraneous movements. It is efficient and quick. This literary dojo follows the gurus of Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It is verb based, rooting the entire story in action. No word is wasted– just a snap-quick punch to the stomach, kept short in distinctively brief sentence structures that the layman can understand. This style is commonly referred to as the gold standard of writing.

Jujitsu is weaponless combat, born from facing an enemy without a sword. It utilizes grapples and throws, exploiting the opponent’s momentum, to put them into submission. Likewise, exposition is utilized only after you have the reader hooked. This is your time to hold them by the neck and force feed them your story in a way that they’ll understand. They’ll be so relieved when you let them go that they usually won’t even remember that you held them hostage. It generally violates the rule of “show don’t tell,” but jujitsu writers don’t give two dookies about that. This is your fantasy writer’s bread and butter– Tolkien, Martin and Rowling all captivate their audiences with authoritative exposition that tells the reader the way things are (Tolkien by way of intense histories, Rowling with a surrogate, eg, Hagrid explaining everything to Harry “Hot Pockets” Potter). Once the reader has submitted to this world view (via the suspension of disbelief), the author allows the reader’s imagination to run wild and then capitalizes on that momentum to throw the reader to the ground and hold them with another expository grapple.

Kung Fu is artful and hypnotic, much like a dance but with a pragmatic reason. The goal is to stagger and intimidate your foe by your performance and obfuscate your movements in a way that they cannot anticipate the next move. Because flourish and grace are celebrated in this fighting style, prosaic writers are Kung Fu masters. Don Delilo, Haruki Murakami, Ken Kesey, Ursula Le Guin– these writers are experts in describing the moments and revealing them with colorful language. Kung Fu masters relish the singular moment and stay there with intense focus. And there’s a split between internal and external intensity. While concentration and focus on interiority can lead towards some personal truths we usually hold locked inside us, similar truths can come from an aggressive breakdown of landscapes, a house, a pair of old shoes and society at large. The general principle in Kung Fu writing is that there’s beauty in everything.

Aikido, similar to Jujitsu, is predicated on the notion that it’s better to use your opponent’s momentum against themselves, instead of exhausting your own energy.  You ever watch Steven Seagal fight a bunch a dudes at once? It’s nuts. He literally just stands there casually and redirects his opponents’ movements into another direction. That placid, casual focus is why I couch the masters of tone into the Aikido camp. Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler (It’s pretty apparent I need to read more female authors, I know), these guys confidently stack up their literary voice to the point where it controls the narrative. The reader accepts this voice rather organically, as the style is generally written in vernacular, and it is through that natural speed that the author can redirect the reader towards where they want them to go. I’d probably lump myself in this group, if I had to choose (sorry, Karate Sensei Dan, who taught me how to punch people really hard in 7th grade! Sumimasen!)

Ninjutsu is the shadow craft. While Kung Fu obfuscates its movements in exaggerated movement, Ninjutsu achieves the same principle by taking a step back. The primary weapons are diversion and tactical invisibility. But we should not forget that, like Karate, Ninjutsu is the art of the common farmer. Writing-wise, the tone must be practical and pragmatic, but the meaning itself is shrouded underneath its common garments. Metaphorical writers are true ninja warriors. Shakespeare is classic ninja. It took a few hundred years of reading his plays to figure out that he made a smelly pussy joke. James Joyce is so ninja, scholars couldn’t figure out that the plot to Finnegan’s wake until the 1990’s. That doesn’t mean the ninja prose has to be immediately baffling– I include Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as modern ninja stories– the actual, purely implicit, plot of both don’t hit until well after the books themselves have left your hands.

Now I suppose the question remains, which dojo do you ascribe to? Do you need to pick one? In my view, modern authors need to be self-aware of how they write so that they can write to the best of their genre– that being being said, modern author’s are lucky to have such a rich tradition with which to engage with. Perhaps the best attitude to utilize this stupid fighting metaphor is to adopt the stance of a MMFA fighter and pick and choose which styles can best telegraph your brain’s guts against particular narrative issues. Need a hook? Karate. Want to explore the human experience? Kung fu. Want to world build within that issue? Jujitsu. Ride a voice into oblivion? Aikido. Want to impart wisdom or cleverness in a way that can be unpackaged overtime, like a good Arrested Development or Seinfeld episode? Ninjutsu. The modern novel calls for all of these things.

So put on your weighted clothes, work out in your gravity-fixed capsule, learn the art, and go Super Saiyan.

Pierre has his new book out! It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you can get the ebook pre-order it here. More of a hardcopy kind of person? Get it in paperback here

Also Nick gives Mortal Kombat a 5/5 rating so as to use their image. It’s a review! Of Mortal Kombat! Surprise! 

 

Book Release: The Least of 99 Evils

Book Release: The Least of 99 Evils

Oh hello there. I’ll be releasing my latest book, The Least of 99 Evils, on June 10th in the year 2017. If you’re in Portland, Oregon, stop on by.

The very talented and British Andy Valentine will be MCing the event and sharing some of his incisive, “Carveresque with brass knuckles” brand of fiction.

There will be guest readers as well, laying down their sweet, sweet words for your enjoyment.

Brett Sisun will be providing the sonic accompaniment before closing the show with a musical performance.

Come on out. It’s going to be a good time.

The Least of 99 Evils is a dystopian thriller with flourishes of horror. It also serves as an apposite political satire: “Welcome to America. Washington DC’s been burned to the ground. Political parties have become petty street gangs. The coasts have been nuked and the flyover states have been entirely walled-in. Have a nice stay.”

Details below:

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Affecting Realism in Dialogue

Affecting Realism in Dialogue

People talk funny. I’m considering ending this post right here.

But that wouldn’t be fair. Writing dialogue in fiction is a tricky little monkey because it wears probably the most hats out of any of the devices in your narrative tool kit. Before we go on, take a moment to appreciate the image of a tricky monkey trying on a lot of hats. Heh. Rad.

Dialogue needs to exposit the plot without being too obvious, represent the atmosphere of the setting, as well as indicate a character’s specific values. Instinctual solutions to this triple-headed problem are often, ehm, shitty.

Kind of in the same way every novice thesbian reads every character in a British accent, the writer’s most common pratfall is raising the dialogue to give it a touch of misplaced class. “Stilted dialogue,” is probably a phrase you’ve read in a book or movie review and refers to the dialogue being stiff, overly-prosaic and “unnaturally formal.” It’s an easily justified solution– “My character’s a class act”– but it commonly bores the reader to hell and back. Worse, it’ll show your ignorance of how Victorian age gentlefolk actually talked because, let’s face it, you don’t know from personal experience, you just watched Pride and Prejudice and thought that’d it look smart on paper. It doesn’t. It’s boring and stupid. Moving on.

The other direction is one I’m more likely to head myself: utilizing dialect. There’s some pratfalls here, too. The most obvious one is looking like a bigot. Writing, say, a Chinese character in broken English would probably earn you a lot of hate. Another danger is steeping the dialogue in so much slang that the meaning is unrecognizable. There are exceptions to this, of course (Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example), but generally speaking you still want the reader to understand what’s being telegraphed. A third danger is similar to the stilts– which is an over reliance on the same dialect. I have this problem that I’ll end up injecting southern drawls into all of my stories, regardless of genre. I’m working on it. But I opt for this direction more often than not because dialect is a means of relaying attitude–and yes, sometimes that attitude is hoity-toity high class Bourgeois bullshit– reflective of the character saying the words.

Over explicative dialogue is also a bummer. I call them “information dumps.” It’s when a character breaks down the plot without nuance and spoon feeds the reader “the grand reveal.” Sometimes it’s unavoidable. For readability and logistical reasons, eventually a character needs to squeal. I don’t always handle this well myself but studying hardboiled detective fiction has offered a blunt solution– make the Macguffin of the story the information itself. Noir fiction achieves this by making the primary action of the novel a series of interviews rife with exposition in a way that seems natural to the needs of the primary character. There’s a suggestion there that applies to all genres– if you need to exposit some plot, enact an interrogation of some kind. Is it a perfect solution? Well, nothing’s gonna be, but as far as my money’s worth squeezing information out of a character tracks more naturally than unsolicited explanations for what’s going on.

Between the tasks of characterizing, expositing and reflecting the setting through dialogue is a golden opportunity to triple down on all three. It requires doing something rather unintuitive at first. Go off track. Instead of having a character simply stating their goal or the nature of their world (which I understand, sometimes ya gotta do), have them fixate momentarily on something non-sequitor. This loop around the immediate problem at hand provides a subtle glance at the setting while keying the reader into how a character thinks– while still participating with plot driven dialogue. Let me dummy up an example:

“Jess, we got to get goin’.”

“The flowers haven’t blossomed yet. Why haven’t the flowers blossomed yet, Jake?”

“Jess? We need to leave, now-like.”

In three short lines of dialogue we know that Jake is urgently concerned with the current setting. Maybe he’s a protecter type, maybe he’s just anxious, but he’s moving the story along. We know that Jess is perceptive, curious and introspective. We know that the flowers haven’t blossomed which makes us feel like the world that they inhabit has gone wrong. It goes from plot and setting to characterization and atmosphere and back to plot.

The reason why deviation coupled with dialect works as a means to express dialogue is that it’s how we naturally speak. We don’t necessarily write the way we talk– except for me and it’s weird to talk to me in person– but we should aim to come as close as we possibly can while still serving the purposes of dialogue. Dialect works because it grounds us to a particular lexicon and style. Deviation works because real life conversations often occur with both parties speaking around each other’s point (I hate to bring up Hills Like White Elephants again, but that’s the perfect example of this). How many times have you yourself brought up something entirely off topic in order to express your own interests? If you can find a way to instill that sentiment while preserving the alternative talking points (and excise the social obligations of “I’m sorry, this is off topic, but…”) while still sharing a conversation that explicates, characterizes, and reflects atmosphere, you might just make your piece feel a little bit more real.  And a spoonful of realism makes the plot go down that much easier.

Fuck stilts.