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.

 

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Planning Your Escape

Planning Your Escape

You ask any number of readers (or gamers, or cinephiles, etc) why they read and I’ll bet you a shiny Sacagawea dollar that the number one answer is going to be “being teleported to another world.” (Popcorn flicks – “to turn my brain off for a while”; video games – “veg out and kill shit”; Netflix – “Chillll.”) Some call this “escapism.” I’m not here to judge the value of escapism, because I already know from personal experience that it’s practically necessary for the survival of my sanity. But looking at escapism from the creative perspective and the work that goes into it, there’s a few things I’ve noticed.

In writing circles, there’s a dumb phrase floating around called “World Building,” in which the writer conceptualizes the setting that their story is going to take place.

I’m pretty sure it’s a trap.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the world you’re trying to  convey to the audience. Understanding spacial relationships within the story is important, too. Fleshing out characters, even minor ones, crucial. But I feel that writers often get stuck in this development phase and it’s tempting to stay there.

Consider HP Lovecraft, often considered the premiere cosmic-horror author, and to do this, consider all of HP Lovecraft’s annoying goddamn fans (BYE, NERDS! Don’t let the red X button hit you on the ass on your way out!). Lovecraftian nerds love to piece together an overarching mythology to Lovecraft’s work, because that’s what human beings do– we organize, label, and critique things. But if you start writing a comprehensive universe first, you’re essentially working backwards. My take is that HP built outwards (very elaborately) to satisfy the needs of the stories he was working on. From the Cthulhu Mythos wiki:

The view that there was no rigid structure is reinforced by S. T. Joshi, who stated “Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”

Something to take from this is the likelihood that intricate, pre-fabricated (in the writer’s notebook) worlds can inhibit creativity. Think about it. If you built a world that featured, I don’t know, a fountain of banana flavored pudding, you’re very likely to move the direction towards that useless fountain instead of where the story needs to go. You’re going to feel obliged to show off your pudding fountain; if you didn’t, you would feel as if you’d wasted your time world building. That’s how you write yourself into a corner. Which is how lazy and contrived plot contrivances (eg- deus ex machina solutions) occur. Keeping things open allows for opportunities, forces the writer to make choices, and to arrive at something unexpected– you know, also known as “the joy of writing.” To offer another example, you can figure out exactly when Venture Bros turned shitty– and it’s at the precise moment that the comedic vehicle of the cartoon was exchanged in favor of in-depth story extrapolation. Compare that with Metalacolypse, which always brings its story to the brink of explanation and then blatantly disregards it. Metalacolypse stayed fresh because it stuck with its comedic guns, favored character over plot, and didn’t get stuck up its own ass.

Another take: Much like character sketching, developing values and rule is more important than the details (although the details should imply the values and yada yada yada). HP Lovecraft is not consistent with his “cosmogony”. He is consistent in his themes and paradigms (“the universe is an uncaring, mechanical place,” “true horror cannot be understood by human minds” etc). To offer another example, the Harry Potter universe isn’t the most consistent– except in its subversion of the ordinary (“This boot is a teleportation device!” “There’s a piece o’ soul in this snake!” “School is fun and zany!”) and its overarching themes (“Love is magic, PEOPLE.” “Racism is bad!”) which makes the series charming and feel cohesive.

A third take: Much of the Lovecraftian universe was organized and expanded on by other writers. The current expansion of the Harry Potter universe feels like an unnecessary shill. The expanded Star Wars universe (with the fine exception of KotOR) is an exercise of human futility. Seems weak to me. Don’t write fan fiction for your own story. Don’t write fan fiction. Write your story.

 

And I know what you’re thinking: Tolkien did it. Sure, Tolkien did it, but there’s some caveats to that argument. I haven’t read the Simarillion (fight me, why doncha), but I know that Tolkien included only a mere fraction of his notes in The Lord of The Rings (showing immense creative restraint to convey only enough as was necessary), and that he baked in his Roman Catholic values into the grain of the narrative which guided the story through its paces, instead of offering some kind of railcar tour of a bunch of stuff in Middle Earth. It’s also important to recognize that Tolkien was a philogist— he studied classical languages, literature and their historical context– and a large part of what Tolkien was doing was combining a lot of epic poetry and European mythology into a series more easily digestible by his modern audience.

There’s been a lot of fantasy churned out since Tolkien and a lot of it only goes so far as to mimic his work. But if you study the epic poems Tolkien sourced as influences (well hello, fellow English majors. How come you all look so sad all the time?), you need to remember that they are representing the world as it was– Beowulf was a modern narrative upon its original telling. So was The Green Knight. The world described in those poems is the world that they lived in with the addition of other worldly forces at play. After Tolkien we fetishized his aesthetic as the ultimate expression of fantasy– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so much as it has become a tad stale as it may no longer reflect the world we live in.

It seems trite to conclude that the way to combat stale universe development is to “just look outside for inspiration! That’s what the poets of the middle ages did!” But it still has to be said. So remember:

  • Aesthetics are important, but not absolute. Like the way you can change your shirt if you spill nacho cheese on it.
  • It’s about a convincing atmosphere…
  • …which is often rooted in reality and then somehow subverted
  • Stay consistent in values
  • Heavy exposition drags. There’s no goddamn reason I need to know “that it rains sometimes on Klthgbak Mountain, a place our heroes will never visit, but will often think of, as Tostito Mojito’s mother was born on Klthgbak Mountain while it was raining.” You like that? I just made that up. Quit being part of the problem.
  • The Devil is in the Details but just this one time, the Devil is not your friend.
  • I bet you HBO calls me tomorrow hoping to develop Mountain Thinkers starring Christian Bale as Tostito Mojito’s mom because THE WORLD IS BROKEN.