The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

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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! 

 

Exploring the Novel

Exploring the Novel

I hear it all the time: “Pierre, you’re such an interesting-looking creature, why don’t you pursue an acting career as a bent-faced, chain-smoking gambler in the upcoming Gun Shooty Bang Robot Boom reboot?”

And I always say, “Naw, babe. I love novels too much.”

And I do. A lot of people do. You ask people who don’t even read what their favorite book is and they’ll still tell you a couple of novels that have stuck with them over the years. So let’s talk about novels. More importantly why novels are, specifically, so important to the human experience? Maybe how.

By and large, people will read a novel once and only once. There are exceptions to the rule, but it’s different from, say, re-watching your favorite films or rediscovering an album from high school that friggin’ Jocelyn burned for you. Songs and scenes might get stuck in your head but it’s hard to capture in any directly relatable way what exactly got you with your favorite book, isn’t it? It’s less about the isolated moments that are so easily defined in music and film and more about the experience itself. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

What sets novels apart from anything else is the participation of the audience to help create what’s being seen, said, smelled… it’s a sensory illusion that the reader, on some level, hypnotizes themselves to believe is a felt, interior reality– if the writer did their job right. It’s a collusion between the two to create the suspension of disbelief. And unlike other art forms, it requires active participation.

(Which isn’t to say that film and music are solely passive experiences– it’s just that reading cannot be so.)

That intermingling of minds has always fascinated me. There’s a strange intimacy there between the author and reader that isn’t experienced elsewhere. Films have a lot of hands that touch the project– and while that is a remarkable thing of itself, that a collaboration of people came together to create something potentially beautiful– it only takes a producer’s (or an actor’s, or a budget’s) soiled fingers to spoil the whole pot of soup. When it’s a singular vision (editors notwithstanding) conveyed directly to the reader, the experience becomes thinking with another person’s brain. This is likely why reading novels makes you a more empathetic person.

That author-reader relationship is only possible through the design of the novel. It’s strange to think about novels as technology, but in the historical context of formatting of stories, novels are sleeker and more easily digestible in its modern form than epic poems or the travelogues that birthed them. There’s no baby fat of repetition for repetition’s sake (like you see in fairy tales) or the loose skin of extraneous oration that bogs down Greek narratives.

While the rule of threes has been commonplace for centuries, the novel perfected the three act structure by shaving it down to its base components. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the novel was developed concurrently with the re-popularization of the triptych in western culture during the 1500’s. The Japanese invented the novel at least a good 300 years prior— and, not coincidentally, had been enjoying cohesive scroll ink paintings for at least a 100 years before that. Classical painting is emotionally and intellectually stimulating but is still more sensed through the lens of the viewer. Even with the triptych’s cohesive storytelling ability, a direct means of story remains elusive. That’s where the novel comes in as a continuation of that tradition– able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and then able to explain the painting.

Speaking of the 1500’s, it’s also not a coincidence that the novel technology is also concurrent with the spread of literacy. Once a privilege held only by clergy and bards, the ability to read leaked out from the clouds above and pissed on all us sinners in a baptism of critical thinking. Without an interpreter, individuals were given the means of direct processing of written content. The result, of course, was an explosion of experimental writing (aaaand institutional upheaval), as well as a certain power regained by the common person: the ability to read and write your own stories. As much as the newborn readers found a sense of individualism with this new privilege, so did the authors– and it’s on that mental platform on which this medium was able to speak from the perspective of an individual and reach people on a personally affecting level, despite that thousands of people were reading the exact same content.

Now you might think I’ve forgotten about poetry. So what about poetry? Didn’t it have the same bloom along with the democratization of literacy? Sure did. I’m not talking shit. It’s just a different, more ancient, technology. My understanding is that poetry is the perfect distillation of emotion and moments into words. If the poet has done their job right. Poetry can be wonderful. But to me it often feels voyeuristic into the mind of the poet and the poet alone. The audience didn’t get there themselves. A journey’s missing. The crystalized truth within the poem often feels like an ill-gotten treasure.

So why obscure the feeling with arcane logic when you could just tell the reader what’s actually happening?

Some of the most powerful fiction I’ve ever read has been a short story. Still, I struggle to engage with a lot of it. Ideally, a short story identifies the moment before a life-changing event in a character’s life, not the moment itself. One of my all-time favorites is Jodi Angel’s A Good Deuce (Tin House Summer Reading 2011, issue #48) which takes place after the narrator’s mother has died from an overdose and ends right before the narrator has sex with an older woman in a car in an overtly oedipal exorcism of the tragedy. This is damn near as perfect of a short story as you can get– but it might’ve been untenable as a part of a full novel. The whole story has already been implied and would feel lopsided in the frame of a different story.

But more often, there’s the opposite problem. Short stories have the general policy of “you get what you get,” and often have the shortcoming of ending just a little too soon. In “Trouble Is My Business,” by Raymond Chandler, everything gets wrapped up just as the characters are beginning to flesh out. I didn’t feel cheated, necessarily, as I felt like the payoff was rushed and, as a reader, that I didn’t earn it. (It’s not unlike that Rick and Morty true crime spoof.)

Like a good (or bad) psychedelic experience, the books you read change you. Feel free to disagree, but I’ll forever maintain that novels are the most effective devices for changing you for the better.

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

We live in an age of an unprecedented fascination with true crime. While I’m not obsessed, per se, I myself hold an interest in the macabre, listen to The Last Podcast on the Left religiously and regularly weird people out with my burgeoning encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers. It’s healthy. And hey, My Favorite Murder found a surprisingly large audience and ranks #22 in top podcasts as of this article’s posting. Serial still dominates the top 10 in most charts, and its good season came out over two years ago. So why the sudden wave of True Crime Entertainment? Is it that the proliferation of podcasts in the last 10 years have offered a medium to accommodate previously verboten, niche subjects? Is it because the subject has been embraced specifically by alternative comedians, making the content more easily digestible? (Comedy is 75% horror, remember?)

Yeah, probably. But that doesn’t account for the years of CSI episodes based on real crimes, or Forensic Files, or etcetera.

So maybe I misspoke earlier. I think there is a precedent.

Millenials are a generation who grew up with the OJ Simpson trial and Columbine on TV. That was the media circus that crept into our minds at an early age, when we were just trying to scam candy dollars off our parents and play Super Smash Brothers. (You could also make the case that the OJ fracas revitalized and cemented interest in The Legal Thriller, but never mind that now). How could we not be curious about this stuff when we grew up, when we were raised in an exploitive media environment that leads with whatever’s bleeding?

That’s a piece of the puzzle, but news media has been exploitative since the invention of ink. Sensationalism surrounding serial killers was already a thing, so what happened in the late 80s that reinvigorated the interest?  Other than a slew of scary murders? I guess I should say, what came out in the 80s that made murder marketable? I look at the fact that James Ellroy released the novel The Black Dahlia in 1987, a fictionalized account of the unsolved, brutal murder of Elizabeth Short in LA, 1947.

I’ve got a lot to say abut Ellroy’s LA Quartet (it’s great), but for now I just want to mention that this was the book that elevated Ellroy from mere genre writer to literary status, and along with his ascent, he brought neo-noir back from the dead. You thank James Ellroy for The Coen Brother’s 90’s films right the hell now. He also put Elizabeth Short in the back of everyone’s brains again, with all of the gory details, priming us for a decade of sticky trials and investigations.

So let’s go back to the actual murder of Elizabeth Short AKA The Black Dahlia. The papers sensationalized the living hell out of the bizarre murder and while it’s somewhat understandable as to why anyone would latch onto this (A bisected body? A victim with a sketchy, mysterious past? Infinite room for speculation? The story writes itself!), the papers are at least partially to blame for the unresolved status of the murder. They went so far as to basically torment Short’s mother for information (having placed a phone call saying that Short had won a beauty contest. Can you imagine?), flying Short’s mother out on the ruse to cooperate with the LAPD and then keeping her away from authorities.

But the real mind job is why the papers called her The Black Dahlia. Okay, so they called it The Werewolf Murder first. But then they got their shit together and called her The Black Dahlia, because Werewolves are gooooofy. One explanation is that she was wearing a fairly skanky black dress at the time of her death. (A sheer blouse? Heavens.) So she was wearing black when she was killed and was known to generally wear black, lacy clothing and some drug store clerks with whom she was friendly claimed to have coined the handle. I find that a little suspect, but no matter how the name came about, it is absolutely a reference noir flick that came out the year before Short’s murder in 1946. A little number called The Blue Dahlia.

It’s an interesting movie. It’s got a tone of misogyny to it and a character keeps on referring to Jazz as “monkey music,” but those things aside, it’s fairly enjoyable. It’s about a Navy Officer fresh from the South Pacific who returns home to his unfaithful lush of a wife. He jets when he finds out she got into a drunk driving accident, killing their son. She winds up dead (duh-doyee) and our guy lams it, trying to find the real killer. There’s some sharp dialogue, some good shots and some clever twists on archetypal characters including a “Lenny”-esque character with a plate in his head (the sound design of his auditory hallucinations might’ve been groundbreaking at the time. I was impressed), a schmoozy club owner with (pathetic) ties to the mob, and a slimy blackmailing detective. The narrative keeps coming back to a nightclub, The Blue Dahlia.

As far as the similarities to Liz Short, there are only a few. The silver screen murder is bloodless (I laughed when the maid finds the body and says, “Oh, brother.”) compared to the ghoulish Black Dahlia case. I think what people attached with was the wife’s loose sexuality and Short, a Hollywood actress hopeful, was known to run around LA with various men in nightclubs. At least, as far as I can figure out. The kind of sites that offer information about her case aren’t–ahem– the most reliable.

Anyway, guess who wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia? That’s right, it’s Pierre’s old favorite crime fiction author, Raymond Chandler. His bastardly behavior production of this film is legendary and it’s the only produced script that he handled solo (finishing the novel completely waaaaasted for days, maybe weeks). It came out the same year as the film The Big Sleep, based off of Chandler’s novel, published seven years earlier (He didn’t work on that screen play. Faulkner did. Probably wasted.).

1944 – 1954: Hardboiled fiction is hot and Hollywood cashes in, ushering in a brief period of Film Noir, influencing media in the most profound visual and tonal movement of the 20th Century.

So there’s this strange interplay of life imitating art with The Black Dahlia. Reality had, through tragic circumstances, provided a story just as lurid as a crime novel, more graphic than a film (thanks, Hays Code) and cheaper to produce than either. So we treated The Black Dahlia murder as entertainment.

And you know what? People bought it. Of course they did.

The fascination with didn’t start with Betty Short (The Lipstick Murderer, anyone? H.H. Holmes–soon to be the subject of a movie starring Leo Dio?), but this was the possibly the widest spread reaction to a singular crime to date (barring Presidential assassinations). It could have been the severity of the violence, or the focus on the victim herself instead of the murderer (which might not’ve panned out historically if this was a solved case), or the myth like quality surrounding it, but any way you cut it, I tend to think that America read the tragedy almost allegorically to the films they were watching and the books they were reading, and not the other way around.

Which is possibly more disturbing than anything else, really.

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Spoiler alert up top: I’m going to delve into Chinatown, LA Confidential and True Detective. If you have any interest in being surprised by those works, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve heard it around the way that a successful Sci Fi or Fantasy book reveals its built up world gradually through the fresh eyes of the main protagonist. I got to thinking that maybe noir does the same thing, except in reverse– we’re introduced to a fantasy and then what follows is the revelation of our very own dark and gritty universe (usually) through the eyes of the protagonist who can see the true, underlying reality.

In my post on character sketching, I quoted Raymond Chandler’s bit on Phillip Marlowe. The relevant piece is this:

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth

That’s not breaking any minds to tell you that The Detective archetype is searching for some veritas in noir detective fiction. But I want to pause first on why these guys feel the need to pursue that hidden truth, or rather, what makes them the type of character that knows something is there.

Sherlock Holmes is a good place to start. He solves crimes by deductive/inductive reasoning. He looks at something from above and in the solving of the case, elevates the crime to his own level. He’s simply smarter than the crime.

But noir heroes slum along the bottom. The Noir Detective yanks down the case to his level. Because his world is the truthful one and the illusion spun by the conspiracy of his social betters doesn’t sit well with the reasoning of the cynical world.

In the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle has been through the hell of losing a child and living deep undercover for years, well acquainting him with the pain of living and how the criminal world operates. When he transitions into a homicide detective, he’s aware that the structures in place are illusory– he can sniff corruption on his fellow police and the investigation is being misdirected by an invisible hand. Cohle also extends this to the broader subject of the world:

“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Rust works outside of the agreed upon societal norms, because he outright rejects them as an illusion. He rejects authority, he rejects human relationships, he rejects society. Which is what makes his and Marty Hart’s relationship so powerful– Marty is discovering that his suburban American dream is ultimately immaterial, realized in the bitter disintegration of his marriage and the troubling sexual pressures his daughters encounter. And he’s ultimately powerless to stop it (owing to his own sexual infidelities, alcoholism, and heavy handed parenting methods). It’s only when Marty is dragged to the bottom, to the world of harsh truths where Cohle is waiting for him, that they are able to finally solve the murders.

The mechanism of noir is the progression of interviews and interrogations. In there lies the fabric of the illusion– everyone provides deceitful information to obfuscate the truth. Let’s take a look at Chinatown in which Jake Gittes (a veteran of the harsh realities in Chinatown) is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who turns out to a be an actor. The water department covers its tracks of diverting irrigation to the orange groves. Hollis Mulwray is found drowned in freshwater, but had salt water in his lungs. Katherine Mulwray is supposedly Hollis’s mistress, before it’s revealed that she is Evelyn’s sister before [redacted]. Everything seems to be positioned in such a way that it seems normal at first glance. By the end of the film, every threaded lie is unspun and what remains is a sinister and grim reality dressed up as a caper. In other words, it’s still Chinatown where base crimes are the norm and it turns out that the rest of LA is no different. Again, normalcy is the fantasy.

Also, how good is it that Gittes gets his nose sliced up, metaphorically making him an impotent detective coinciding with him unable to decipher the pageantry in front of him? Pretty sweet.

There’s a lot to play with here and a good example of flipping this script is James Elroy’s LA Quartet. If you think about the main characters driving the novels, they are actually somewhat naive and too obsessed with outperforming their peers to realize the fallacy the of the criminal justice system they participate in. Perhaps because of this, they are often casualties of their own investigations, one way or another. Meanwhile, the common thread through all of these stories is the ever terrifying Dudley Smith, a man who understands the dark reality of crime and departmental (even federal) corruption. Instead of being a The Noir Hero, he chooses to perpetuate (and occasionally even create) the illusion to benefit himself financially and further his career. I can’t think of a better noir villain than Dudley.

At the end of the day what you have is a character interacting with the setting. Interacting is the operating word. I feel as if many books in various genres offer a passive protagonist who allows the world to happen at them. What I appreciate about noir is that the protagonist digs his hands into the guts of the setting and shows the reader its entrails and shouts, “THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE’RE MADE OF.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

The first book I wrote (that has still gone unpublished, a-boo-hoo) came from the desire to summon a character into literary being that was so chaotic and anti-authoritarian (yet ultimately harmless) that he would rip through whatever situation I placed him in and get me to a finished manuscript. He did. Over the course of 50,000 words I got to know the guy. Then I threw 90% of the book away and started over (as is the fate of first drafts of first books), this time with more intimate knowledge of my character. I started with a concept and ran it through a machine of events and conflict. Ding! A character was born.

So as not to waste that much time and paper, however, character profiles and sketches were invented to save the author some hassle. It’s helpful to have a reference for all of the dramatis personae flying around a story. I agree. I have a hunch, however, that a lot of profiles focus on the character’s appearance (which usually translates to dry prose when described over and over…) or their general backstory (which can be interesting, if you go into one or two character’s histories in a novel, but quickly turns into a slog).

Writing a character profile is difficult, I think, because it’s hard to describe ourselves. You lovebirds on OKCupid know what I’m talking about– when there’s a gun up to your head to describe yourself, you end up talking about the music you like, the hobbies you enjoy, and how invested you are in your career. Vague. Which isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s better than, “Hi! I’m Dina! I’m 5’7″ I wear black eyeliner and leather boots with black jackets with pink buttons with little butts engraved in the copper and when I was growing up in an orphanage by the dragon lagoon, I found a pendant that farted when I prayed to it…”

It’s even harder to describe other people. Enjoy this familiar scene I have prepared for you:

“Tell me about Steve.”
“He’s funny.”
“Oh?”
“And smart.”
“I bet he’s shy, as well.”
“He is a little bit shy, but really fun once you get to know him.”

Uncanny, right?

Now here’s the Godfather of noir, Raymond Chandler, describing Phillip Marlowe:

“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

Damn, right? Here’s a few takeaways: Chandler is focusing on values. On basic motivations. On attitude. He knows how Marlowe is going to handle any situation, before he knows what the situation is. That kind of confidence is what can allow you to improvise.

Let’s say you write a scene in which your hero is fleeing a kill-squad of robots, only to run into her evil twin brother, wielding a machete. BAM. Writer’s block. You flip to your character sketch. It says, “She has a sick belt buckle.” Oh no! You keep reading. “She’s really funny.” That could come in handy later, but is currently useless. “Highly aggressive and brutally violent to a fault.” Phew, you exhale, wiping perspiration off of your brow. Now you know that you hero would kick her brother in the chest, grab the machete and start swinging wildly at robots until they overwhelm and imprison her for robot crimes.

Bad example, but you get the idea.

So how about this? Spend some time making character profiles (even with your currently written ones) and identify some key characteristics.

  • “What is their general attitude?”
  • “How do they respond to conflict?”
  • “What is their way of speaking?”
  • “What do they find despicable?”
  • “What do they believe in?”
  • “How sick is their belt buckle?”
  • “What can break them?”

Once you have the answers to this, or a list of rules that summarizes those values, you should have a pretty keen mental shorthand of your character’s behavior in addition to a concrete reference.

And hey, while you’re rolling your character’s stats, you might as well take another page from Dungeons and Dragons and try using the alignment spectrum and decide where you character falls and why. Want to use archetypes? Consult the enneagram which offers motivations behind archetypal behaviors.

Tired of writing? That’s cool, too.

Take a break and get to know thyself.