Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Newton's Third Law doesn't apply to prose

One of the common complaints I have received from those who have read/are reading my first installment of the story is that the characters all think like me.  Nobody really says it that way, of course.  But people have questioned why Matt loves Crystal, why Crystal loves Matt, why Crystal reacts the way she does to the cataclysm, why the girls behave the way they do, etc.  The questions and comments are all individually addressable by adding more explanation, but they all hit on a deeper criticism, a more fundamental flaw.  I have created mental images and character sketches of all the folks in the book, and trust me, they're all different people, but in implementing the sketches into the prose, I think I've kinda crapped out so far in that grand task what literature majors call characterization. 

On one level, it's easy to fix.  I can easily go back through and tweak the reactions, add text, maybe change a few zigs here and a couple of zags there, and it'll be the gripping and satisfying story I've envisioned.  More universally, though, it leads to an interesting question: what is characterization?  The good folks at tell me it's "...the creation and convincing representation of fictitious characters." help there. is a little better: "Representation of a character or characters on the stage or in writing, especially by imitating or describing actions, gestures, or speeches."  But c'mon, if that were all there is to characterization, then I've done a fine job.  My characters all...well, mostly...have described actions, gestures, and speeches.  No problem!

Yes, problem.  Actions, gestures, and speeches aren't the sum total of what makes us who we are.  Another big piece of the puzzle is our reactions.  When somebody brushes up against me in the halls at my work, I smile and say "excuse me" as though it were my fault, because that, to me, is the professional thing to do.  It's what I do, unless, that is, I'm grumpy or haven't had enough coffee yet or just got my blood drawn or had to deal with an irritating situation or...well, let's just say there are a host of situations that can affect my reaction.  I might smile a little less convincingly, or I may or may not say "excuse me."  What I don't think I'd ever do, of course, is react the way I've seen a student react...start screaming and yelling and threatening to physically harm the other person.  At least, I don't think I'd ever do that.

Problem is, I don't know.  I'd like to think I'm a very logical person.  I'd like to think that there aren't a set of circumstances like what the student I saw went through that would cause an explosion like that.  But I must admit, I don't know myself well enough to really know that for certain.  I doubt anybody does.

Diving back into fiction, would you react?  Your husband, up to now a pretty normal guy, has just pulled you and your daughters through some sort of gateway to him, picked you up and transported you and a few hundred others to a fantastically beautiful estate, and told you that everything you've ever done and known is now destroyed.  Oh, and by the way, he's an immortal god.  Of war.  Would you smile, fake or no, and try to carry on and be strong?  Would you collapse into a screaming fit?  Would you shrug it off, happy that your new lifestyle is much better, including a palace and servants, than the previous?

Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that you're certain of your answer?  Didn't think so.

I'm reading Eye of the Needle now...almost done with it, in fact.  For those who haven't read it, I apologize if I bust a plot for you, but the German spy 'Die Nadel', whom in the book we've come to know as an absolutely effective and ruthless implementer of the arts of espionage up to and including murder, hits an espionage home run and discovers the Allies' plans, takes photos, and is on his way to the Fatherland to ruin Churchill's and Roosevelt's day, and then he falls for a pair of boobies.  What?  Are you kidding me?

In a similar vein...Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could've had nearly any woman he wanted, and really, after Elizabeth Bennet smacked him around as she did, if you were the wealthy and good-looking bachelor proprietor of Pemberley estates, would you have gone back walking across a field for her?  Really? 

Hafta admit, though, that both do make for an interesting story...and conversely, they would've been quite the boring stories had reactions gone the other way.  Besides, I can't honestly say I wouldn't have done the same thing as those two men.  Can you?

The core problem of characterization, then, is also what leads to some of the most interesting quirks in fiction.  An author can create coldly logical characters, or completely illogical characters, or normal Joes who are somewhere in between.  All of that comes to light, then, as the author sets up the characterization in the prose.  But then the most remarkable thing happens.  Coldly logical characters can behave illogically (yeah, I'm not gonna mention the ultimate archetype here...not gonna do it no matter how much I wanna).  Completely illogical characters can do the inverse.  It happens in real life, right?  And so it happens in literature as well.

The challenging thing, challenge, especially, once I get back around to editing the first to make sure we understand why the characters are reacting the way they are, even when the characters themselves don't understand it.  That's the first part of the challenge; the second part is transmitting that through the prose to the reader.  It promises to be a fun exercise. 

Word Count: 51,450

No comments:

Post a Comment