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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 9.28.51 PM.png

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.

 

Advertisements

All the World’s A Page

All the World’s A Page

During the office hours for a medieval literature class, my professor (and in case it wasn’t clear that I was a poor, poor academic, I was taking this class remedially, as I had flunked out of that same professor’s Chaucer class) told me something I’ve been turning around in my head ever since– that people in the Dark Ages read the world allegorically.

What the hell does that mean? Well, first you need to consider that folks in the olden days didn’t read words so much. Literacy was a tool reserved for Jesus nerds (clergymen) who would read, and then interpret, the Bible during mass. To be a good Christian, one has to read the Bible faithfully. So how does an illiterate farmer accomplish that?

According to my professor, a farmer dude might look at a tree and contemplate it as an allegory for Christ. He’d see the roots planted firmly in the ground, the branches leaning into the sun, and I don’t know, he’d see an apple or something. And he’d interpret that to mean by firmly grounding oneself in faith (roots), seeking truth in the God’s word (light, sun), one is rewarded (fruit, salvation).

And then he’d go stick some leeches on his butt because a barber told him that cured syph’.

Basically, the gist of it is that they saw the world as a manifestation of The Bible, that the world had the Word of God coded into its every corner.

It’s a common misconception that people in history were dumb. We have a tendency to think because we’re progressively marching towards a fairer world and have smart phones, that we’re smarter than we used to be. We’re not, exactly. Our phones are. The human brain hasn’t changed much in thousands of years (except the relatively modern trend of shrinkage). The farmer doesn’t have the tools of literacy, or a socially aware history, or access to modern medical science. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what I think that story speaks to is that farmer still had a critically thinking brain, and he applied it to the world around him using the lens of religion to understand and interpret that world.

Despite all of our technology, despite the lowest global illiteracy rates we’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to think that we still read the world allegorically. You’d think that it’d be the other way around– that we view something, we interpret it, and then we write our piece on it. And maybe that’s true some of the time and probably definitely true in early development. But I’m thinking that maybe our brains become wired to hold certain schemas (primed by upbringing, advantages or disadvantages, and media) about how the world works such that we interpret events before they happen– or rather, we justify events to fit our preexisting schemas.

Children do this naturally and intentionally– I personally crafted my life to reflect a reality of Calvin and Hobbes, pretended to be a pirate after watching Hook, and I would fight hundreds of invisible foes after watching 3 Ninjas. That’s until I discovered video games, after which, I made swords and shields out of errant pieces of metal lying around my house. I threw Pokéballs at bugs. I’d watch the ocean, hoping to see a dragon. I wanted these things to be real to the point that I was willing to let my imagination redirect reality into a personal narrative. At least until playtime was over.

Writers have a tendency to do this in adolescence in a very meta sense– writing fan-fiction using pre-existing fantastical universes to access their own emotions and frame their own internal struggles with something familiar. (Uncomfortable example: “Oh nooo,” said Professor Umbridge. “It seems I’ve dropped my quill.”) 

Now we live in an age of information bubbles, where two polarized sides of America can watch the same news story play out and offer two completely disparate interpretations, each one validated by their home base.

How does that happen? Well, we’re all aware of the concept of confirmation bias, right? That you only seek out the information that serves your views and ignore or discredit that which opposes your views. That’s the psychological mechanic behind reading the world allegorically. It’s just that The Bible we’re priming ourselves with now includes literature, movies, the news, memes and social media. Our brains understand the world around us through what we watch and read and consume on a daily basis.

Astrology is a good example of this in action. Let’s say you’re a Libra and are interested in dating a Leo (Hey, I’m a Leo! It doesn’t matter.) because you know and love Leos. You two go out for a drink. Despite this Leo being generally uptight and reserved, you might find yourself ignoring this and focusing on what makes them appear to be gregarious and outspoken. (“They laughed at my joke! Leos love jokes! This is going to work!” or “They were such an asshole to the bartender! Classic Leo! This is going to work!”)

Or maybe your Horoscope informed you that you would find someone who had been missing from your life and advised to stay away from tenuous situations. Then a friend from high school wanders into your workplace and orders a coffee (you’re a barista in this example, because, of course you are). Later, a dispute breaks out between coworkers and you choose to separate yourself from it. You get home and remember your horoscope, and wouldn’t you know it, it came true! Didn’t it?

Well, these are examples of shoehorning a paradigm into something benign– or in the dating example, a special kind of color blindness that sees all flags as white. Not to get into too much of a tangent on the cookie-cutter advice Horoscope writers dish out (not that it’s ever bad, per se, but it’s just common sense. Avoid tenuous situations? One of the reasons human beings are still alive is our capacity for risk assessment), but wouldn’t it have also been true if you read, say, a Cancer’s ‘scope and it said something like, “You will reclaim a memory you thought you had lost and cool heads prevail under times of duress?”

When it matters, it’s when the situation isn’t so benign. Look at it from a political perspective, because apparently it’s impossible not to these days.

On the right: If your news, your friends and family, your Mark Wahlburg movies and favored political leaders are saying that Islam is a religion of war, you’re going to look at the world, afraid, and find examples to justify that fear– because examples of violence are there, and the natural tendency is to extend that example to all examples. But you’d be ignoring the 99.994% of the global Muslim population who aren’t extremists and the 94% of terroristic attacks carried out on US soil by non-Islamic extremists because that doesn’t fit the narrative.

On the left: If your news, your friends, perhaps not your parents, your comedians and favored political leaders vilify red state voters, you’re going to find examples of white supremacy, misogyny, and hate– because examples are definitely there. But you’d be ignoring the plight of former industrial workers who can’t get a job because governmental interests have left their economy to rot and their towns are in the valley of too populous yet too small to accommodate customer service jobs like cities and suburbs can. They chose the devil they didn’t know, because the last one screwed them in their perspective.

Obviously, I fall onto the left side of the spectrum. But I want everyone to recognize that our minds, beautiful machines capable of astounding works that they may be, are reactionary to precedent information which perhaps interprets the world for us, before we can even take a moment to breathe.

Psychological schemas are solid, but not unshakeable blueprints. We’re constantly updating (usually buttressing) the designs, but never lose hope that the most hateful of people can come around to a reasonable understanding as long as we remember that people are people and have always been people.

The only thing I can think to prescribe is a careful and well variegated media diet. I’m not saying you should listen to Alex Jones– I’m pretty sure no one should– but perhaps by entertaining– not necessarily believing or ascribing to– a palette of perspectives, we can understand each other’s personal allegory. Because our brains will favor a story over reality every single time.

Failing that, remember what Socrates said: “I do not think I know what I do not know.

 

 

 

Root Cause

Root Cause

Some folks say that the hardest part about writing is starting. It’s difficult, to be sure, but I reckon the harder part is continuing. So let’s get both of those ducks in a row and discuss the importance of motivation, the lucrative subject that really doesn’t need to be monetized nearly as much as it is.

I guess we’d have to start with the age old question, “What compels you to write?” There are a lot of answers to this ranging from the dismissive (“Because I have the sickness.”) to the delusional and grandiose (“Because I’m rad at it.”), but nearly all of the answers fall into either internal or external motivations.

External

In a lot of ways, writing was easier in an academic setting because you had teachers giving you deadlines and feedback. There are rigid rules– I need to write a short story, because I’ll fail if I don’t. Or, I need to edit this short story, because my teacher will make fun of me in front of my entire class if I don’t. I had a good writing professor. Those are external motivations, but they are contained in an academic setting. There’s no assignments in life (unless you give them to yourself) and no grade (except Amazon reviews). Yet there are still external sources of motivation to write.

There’s a lot to be said about the support of friends and family. These people love you and want you to be happy. I hope. Accept their support. Ask them if they want to read something you wrote. Make it perfectly clear that they don’t have to. Also make it clear to yourself that they support what you’re doing and they’re going to have your best interests at heart whether they read the piece or not. So then you might need to question why you want their approval.

Perhaps you have the need for attention. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s OK to be driven by self-validation. It’s OK to use your talents to impress people. Some people will disagree, but those people aren’t funny. Perhaps you want to connect with your readership, in part because you find it hard to communicate your ideas any other way. That’s also fine. Maybe you’ve got this grandiose vision of Truth and this book is your way of clearing the wool from all these damn sheeple’s eyes, and you want people to recognize your genius 100 years from now in the annals of literary history. That’s… yeah, whatever, that’s cool, too. You might be kind of a pretentious asshat, but hey, I’ve been one myself a few times.

But there’s a limit to external sources. Because inevitably, you will fail somehow. You will get a bad review on Amazon. You will write a story your partner thinks is stupid, because it’s really stupid. A friend or family member will tell you to focus on a real job with health benefits. That can all be crushing. But were you writing for them?

The other problem with external motivation is that its currency is usually imaginary at the beginning. Sometimes it’s a helpful fantasy to keep you going. The rest of the time you might find that there are easier ways to validate yourself– like Twitter, or Yoga I guess. Point is, you might find yourself entertaining the fantasy of success instead of making moves towards it. I know this, because I’m not what you’d call a “successful” writer and have “entertained” a lot of “fancies.” And I know that kind motivation has an expiration date if you want to complete your projects, because it’s easier to dream than to write.

Derek Sivers strikes the notion that by stating your goal out loud, you are less likely to follow through with the goal, because you’re brain interprets the fact that you said it out loud with actually doing it. Now, if you’ve already spilled the guts to your novel, there’s a good chance that you did it for social recognition. Again, that’s fine. We need social recognition to maintain sanity. But you could’ve also shot yourself in the foot if you haven’t gotten that idea down on paper. I’m guilty of this too– a lot of would-be projects are lost to the wires of long distance phone calls and late night hooliganism when a friend inevitably asks, “What are you working on?” And I bank on the immediate gratification of having formed a good idea and I feel like a good boy and get a pat on the head for being super smart.

Internal

But to maintain a consistent work ethic, you need to dive into the well of internal motivation. The primary example that I keep going back to is a pride in quality– that if a work sits unread in a vacuum, I can still enjoy it for what it is. Not perfectionism, not necessarily feeling like it is even good, but a sense of satisfaction that follows labor, concentration, and thought.

Another: the love of reading– a reminder that I’m participating in a creative capacity that involves my favorite, and perhaps, most meaningful activity. It might be trite to repeat that good writers read, but, there you go. When I delve into works of fictive masterpieces I try connect to the author writing it and remember that, often, they think that it’s utter garbage. They aren’t attempting a grasp for fame or acknowledgement, but that they are simply trying and their efforts spilled brilliant minds onto pages.

Then there’s the practical approach: the old, “ass-in-chair-time” as it was once described to me. Making time for this can be hard but whether or not the motivation is there, there’s work to be done. The mind resists aggressive creation when it would rather be passively ingesting digital gossip from Facebook. I’ve been progressing towards setting an amount of time apart in the day to write, instead of word count quotas, à la Chuck Palahniuk’s egg timer method. The quota is still there if I get distracted, but by and large, human eyes detest empty spaces.

More often than not, forcing oneself to work leads to a genuine joy of writing. It creates a mental space that’s separate from the rest of the world, a workshop wherein one can place intense focus into solving logistical problems and turn a clever phrase, a place where the rules of Hell are reversed: agonizing labor becomes pleasurable and a certain sense of freedom is regained. In a world where meaning is constantly being questioned, it feels liberating to be able to create content that speaks Truth to the author as well as, one hopes, a readership.

Writing as Improv

Writing as Improv

First, a suggestion: If you are a hopeful writer in high school or college, the absolute best advice I can give you is…

Take theater.

Second, an explanation: Me and my friends get together and discuss our current projects semi-regularly. Because I live in Portland, most of these friends are musicians. We got to talking recently about the concept of “flow” and what it takes to improvise musically.  It means practicing your technical skills repeatedly and then turning your brain off.

Here’s an article what happens to your brain while free-styling rap, the cut of the jib of which is:

The areas implicated in processes like organization and drive were marked by an increase in activity, while those parts responsible for close self-monitoring and editing were deactivated.

I think it boils down to trusting that one knows their technical skills are there and by tapping into one’s subconscious, that it will automatically organize itself into a song. It’s like having a dream right? The majority of us are not film directors and yet we build sets, costumes, create characters and write dialogue all while our brain is supposedly “off.”

The famous quote of comedic genius Del P. Close is “follow the fear.” Fear is the mind killer and, in art, that might actually be a good thing. It’s a way to shut out the ego and trust your own instincts.

I want to bring this discussion to a classic argument shared by writers: “To outline or wing it?” Nearly every reading I’ve gone to, this question is asked and the answer is always the same– “it’s up for debate, but I personally need to outline my own books, so I don’t lose track of yada yada yada…” But what about the other side, the “wingers”, that don’t plan ahead? Another quote to the rescue:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Thanks, E.L. Doctorow. And I agree with him. Well, how about that I agree with both? If you’ll indulge me about my own writing process, I make a loose, looooose, outline that’s almost never more than 1-2 sentences denoting what needs to happen per scene. If I have a complicated web of relationships (such as in Muddy Sunset) I’ll spend some time figuring that out ahead of time in a notebook and set it aside. As far as the actual writing goes, I take those 1-2 sentences and then I improvise.

Authors often say that this causes the problems of 1. Creating more work later (true) and 2. is messy and inconsistent (not always true) because 3. Without a plan, you are lost (often true, but not always a bad thing).

To which I want to ask the following question: If I know I’m driving to the beach and have three hours to do so, does it really matter what road I take? Recall any family vacation and I almost guarantee you that the thing you remember most is where you stopped along the way, not the actual mind-numbing highway through Kansas (sorry, Kansas). Or you remember changing a tire, or waiting for the tow-truck, needing the bathroom 75 miles away from the nearest gas station– you remember everything that hadn’t been planned or accounted for. Not having everything in place ahead of time allows for spontaneity. I try to maintain a rule that I need to surprise myself at least one time per scene. If I, the author, am surprised, there’s a fantastic chance that the reader will be surprised as well.

Another quote, this one by Raymond Chandler, a personal hero of mine:

“The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

This too speaks of tapping into that fugue state, and following the subconscious instinct in storytelling.  It’s about trusting what lies beneath the topsoil of your brain, that’s there’s something special under there and it’s up to you as the writer to uncover it and show it around. Maybe your tools haven’t been sharpened (it’s a lifelong game, and no one ever reaches 100% perfection) and if that’s the case and you don’t trust yourself yet (or perhaps too much) there are many viable spaces online to practice and get feedback.

So back to the beginning. Hopeful writers still in school: take drama. Participating in theater during high school helped me nearly as much as taking creative writing and standard English courses. Theater taught me…

  1. To improvise.
  2. To embrace the fear of performance.
  3. To step inside a character’s psychology, physicality.
  4. To shut my own brain off and go with “The Flow.”

These are the lessons that don’t get covered in English courses (“But what does it mean?“) or creative writing courses (“What does Raymond Carver teach us about Craft?”).

If you aren’t in school and find yourself stuck with writer’s block, perhaps try to engage the subconscious mind and participate in other disciplines: music, theater, drawing.

You might be surprised what your brain has in store for you and your story.