Punks: 1a) Characters That Create Action, Characters Worth Creating

Posted on January 10, 2012

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Me and Alex T. in Venice, November 2011

Verboten though it is to admit in some circles, I have never liked the short fiction of American literary god Flannery O’Connor. No doubt a genius of titles (“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” etc.), but of Story? Try as I might to glean her genius even as an adult sliding toward 40, I see only a miniature stage, the Writer hovering above her Characters with marionette strings.

O’Connor’s writing advice, however, as collected in my beloved college text The Story and Its Writer by Anne Charters (see my juvenile-as-shit marginalia below), possesses just the naturalness and forcefulness I find lacking in her fiction. While working up to an especially crucial chapter in The Nowhere in the Middle over Christmas and New Year’s Day, I went digging around for inspiration. Upon seeing the 1960s mental hospital green spine on my how-to bookshelf, I remembered her essay “Writing Short Stories.” I flipped to the last page, and there it was, smiling at me like a cat that had eaten my lunch:

In most good stories, it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story.

This should perhaps be the most obvious thing to a writer like me who isn’t invested in doing straight, by-the-formula genre fiction, but it wasn’t because I give equal weight to character and plotting. I don’t choose to emphasize one element over the other because without sufficient amounts of either, Story dies a quick, dumb death. (For the record, I define Story as all the factors that enchant readers into the world you’ve created—some accidental but the majority carefully conjured.)

Unfortunately, a pitfall of revision is its mechanical quality, the revisiting of problem paragraphs and sentences, that will trick you into thinking all of your novel’s problems are technical or plot-based. In the case of my novel, the final eighth and ending are not cutting it, but the beginning and middle felt structurally sound after judicious tightening and a taut rewrite of the tricky opening chapter this fall. What gives? I demanded of Ye Ole Editing Godz to no avail. I was trying so hard but failing even harder.

O’Connor’s nugget of wisdom supplied the answer, though I came close to solving my own problem with this note to self from September: “Define Jilly [the main character and narrator] more. Who is this stunted 23-year-old?” It was a damn good question. After a few months of revision, she still didn’t command my attention, which meant she didn’t have any magic to wield on readers, and that was unacceptable.

Before coming across the O’Connor line, I am glad to say I followed my instincts and after Thanksgiving did a lot of heavy rereading, by which I mean I sat down and tried to experience the narrative as someone, anyone but me, the creator. No corrections allowed, just visceral reaction and note taking, as if I were producing authentic marginalia. This has been an especially brutal task because I work as an editor for a living. After more than 13 years of tweaking, slashing, and rearranging text, I’ve forgotten how to read like a reader reading for pure pleasure. It is a humiliating occupational hazard, though I will tell you that the antidote is cheap and simple enough: read great, immersive books, one at a time.

Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (the thread about the narrator’s M.D. grandfather and the Deathless Man is exquisite), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (I detested prissy Aschenbach, but his obsession mesmerizes), and James Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (a recent addition to my punk rock bibliography) reminded me that I read for character and authorial voice, and that they derive from each other. The author cannot enchant without her main vehicles for doing so; characters stall sans a vision of the world they inhabit.

The problem with my novel, as all of my homework, O’Connor essay included, pointed out, wasn’t that I didn’t have promising characters, but that they were in some cases only 75 percent developed. Almost but not quite prime to conduct reader enchantment; endowed with enough brains to talk but not enough spirit to captivate an over-stimulated 21st-century content hog or grazer (you know what I mean!). This has meant unfurling or truncating dialogue here and there and considering much more deeply when they story takes place, just a year or so after 9/11, an era that I have in some cases chosen to forget, in others I have just plain forgotten.

Delving back into 2002 via Wikipedia articles, music, my AOL email archive, and my photo albums sparked bursts of memories about burgeoning technologies that dominate our lives now, from cell phones to iPods. Not to mention the thickening fog of depression and impending war with Iraq. Uncertainty among my friends and colleagues about who we were and wanted to be as a country, as generations, and as individuals. An uncertainty that dogs Americans still, from what I can tell, and that I think, ten years after 9/11, we are interested in addressing.

That a group of teenagers, twenty-somethings, and baby boomers in Bismarck, ND, will be the agents of that soul searching gives me great satisfaction. I am out to prove that coming of age, that literary trope associated with hyper-youth, has to happen every decade, or we risk shriveling up prematurely.

To hear what I mean, listen to “Whirring” by The Joy Formidable. Next post, a deeper examination of character and some-suchness.

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Posted in: Fiction, Revision