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.


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.




Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Once upon a time my super happy, super pregnant Intro to Creative Writing Fiction teacher had a baby fall out of her and had to take some time off. We finished off the year with a super sardonic, grim-faced teaching fellow named Jen.

Jen brought something to our attention that I’d never considered before. You know the phenomena of how once you learn a new word, you can’t help but notice it everywhere? Or like how I always see the ghost of Mary Tyler Moore trying to untie a knot in a yo-yo in the corner of my eyes? Everywhere I fucking go? The point is this concept is a universal plague.

It’s the lack of object permanence in writing.

Simple concept, right? It’s one of the first “skills” you come to learn as a pathetic little baby through the repetitive game of peek-a-boo. During that period of development, one comes to understand that a person or thing still exists despite the object being out of view. It’s a thing we take for granted until we have to create a written narrative that guides a reader as smoothly as possible through a sequence of events.

I’m talking about how a character will, say, fill a glass of water from the faucet early in a scene and then, shortly after, punches somebody in the face without ever mentioning the water again. Did the character drink it? Did he put the glass down? Or did he punch someone in the face with the glass of water in his hand? Another example: “Kelly lit her pipe. Kelly took a bite of cereal.” Did she eat the cereal with the pipe in her mouth? Stop laughing in the back, this is serious. If she did, how? These are the kinds of questions you don’t want your reader to be asking.

So just go ahead and answer the questions before they’re questions, dig?

Ground the scene in action. Have the character take a sip– or, have him deliberately not take a sip of water, before clearly stating that the glass goes back on the table, or smashes to the ground or whatever. It doesn’t matter just as long as you’re telling the reader what’s happening with the inventory you’ve introduced on the page. This creates a wide variety of opportunities to do a bit of characterization because it forces you– and the reader– to understand why the character made a choice and what values are inherent in that choice. Is Kelly the kind of slob who’s figured out a way to eat cereal while smoking a pipe? Is Beef McSweat the kind of guy who puts his glass down before throwing ‘bows? Or does he smash it on the floor?

It’s also part of logically sequencing a scene so as to build tension and demonstrate a rising conflict. If you were to study the amazing opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, you’ll notice that meticulous attention is paid to the objects on set. In the linked scene above, it’s primarily LaPadite’s pipe and Landa’s glass of milk that get the primary focus. You’ll notice how when the characters handle those items, it speaks to their values– LaPadite nervously chews on the pipe while Landa joyfully sips his milk while discussing social Darwinistic metaphors. Even how LaPadite passes the glass of milk slowly over to Landa suggests that he is hesitant to give Landa what he wants, but he will.

And that kind of descriptive, implicit action is only effective when attention is paid to the treatment of those objects– there isn’t a single shot in which LaPadite’s pipe is out of place. You see him put the pipe in his mouth. It doesn’t go back on the table or out of his mouth without you seeing him remove his pipe. You don’t see him light the match, but you do hear the sound design of a match being lit before it cuts to him lighting his pipe. Likewise, you don’t see Landa shift in his chair at first, but you do hear the noise his chair makes. This level of detail is why movies have script supervisors: consistency, context and logic that seamlessly flows through dozens of shots and probably hundreds of takes.

When you don’t have that kind of anal retentive attention to detail, you’ll find that objects will disappear out of characters’ hands like electrons dipping in and out of existence like in the Heisenberg Principle. Even if it’s on a subconscious level, this’ll force the reader out of the story. I see a lot of lists of actions that are not correlated to each other, divided by dialogue. And making it a linear sequence is too simple: choose a single object and a single action responding to that object. There will be a reaction.

Paying close attention to this will also show you what’s unnecessary through sheer tyranny of effort. Did your character really need to hold a dodge ball at that moment in time? No? Can you make it fit? No? Ditch it. A lot of writers will fill in blank space with what they just did/ are doing/ will do/ shit they like. Some of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. How many times have you written a character smoking a cigarette because that’s what you would do? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But make sure if a habit hasn’t been established, make it a big deal by paying attention to where the butt goes after it’s spent.

The zealous approach to object permanence in writing is to ground the surroundings to such a fine detail that it becomes boring minutiae. That isn’t what I’m suggesting you do. Writing a paragraph about folding laundry, followed by another paragraph on washing dishes, followed by another paragraph on alphabetizing the sections of the newspapers before dropping them into the recycling bin is a waste of studious talent. (Unless, I guess, you’re doing something like Murakami.)

Point is, you’re not supposed to notice the movements of the object in hand at first– which only happens if you complete the interaction with said object. We might know on an instinctual level what LaPadite passing the milk across the table means when we see it, but not on an intellectual level until after the scene and whole movie is over. You’re supposed to take it for granted– which is why it’s so easy to overlook the absence of object consistency in the editing passes.

So before you become a lice-ridden, self-conscious creature, here are some situations when you don’t really need to keep follow-through in mind, while still maintaining consistency: when you are summarily describing events (“Dude ate breakfast. Dude left for work.” We don’t need to see him eat breakfast in a play by play.); if it’s habitual (“Dude lit the 21st cigarette of the day.” We assume he does something with the butts.); if actions are actually implied between the action and context (“Dude cracked a beer and talked my ear off for twenty minutes about steel beams and grays stealing his skin. Dude cracked another beer…” It’s implied that he finished the first one.)

It might sound like a cynical perspective to say that all human beings are materialistic– but we’d be simple monkeys without the tools we learned to make in way-way-back. We attach meaning to the things we hold through the actions we make with them. A hammer hammers nails. It only makes sense that a hammer needs to be in the hands of a carpenter while he’s a-nailing, instead of his lunch pail.

Unless you’re being ironic.