Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Twofer

expectations--the results each character foresees when venturing into a new scene, a guiding compass as the character is being borne along on the stream of narrative within scenes or connecting them. A character without expectations in a scene is the equivalent of the scenic backdrops found at tourist attractions, where one inserts one's head and is photographed as a comic memento.

Every character wants something; this is the passport to cross the border from joke or anecdote or vignette into the landscape of story. Accordingly, imagine the tourist character equipped with a fanny-pack right out of the L.L. Bean catalog. Along with that character's desire, rolled neatly and resting on top of history/backstory, attitude, and feelings about the other characters in the story is expectations. That character expects the next scene to be an occasion of achievement, boredom, surprise, humiliation, frustration, severe reversal, sexual opportunity, inspiration, or challenge. These will be delivered in such a way and by appropriate characters to send the story forward, leaving as emotional residue an identifiable counterpoint. Expectations are the qualities that give dimension and life to story, allowing the character to do what characters are intended to do--react. The character need not use all the tools in the fanny-pack in every scene, except for expectations and the personal sense of having been in or lived through some situation or encounter before entering the present scene. Without these two possessions, the character is sure to be turned back at the border.

willing suspension of disbelief, the--a term coined by critic-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to account for the inertia of skeptical disbelief a writer must overcome in a reader in order to have his narrative accepted as real. With so many books being published and so many sources apparent for short stories, readers are daring writers to be more convincing, at pain of not pursuing a story to its conclusion. Sophisticated readers have come a long way from the early days of the novel and short story; they know the characters are inventions of the author. But they also know that a skillful writer can make them forget this fact, empathize with fictional beings, root for their favorites, and experience severe distress when their favorite characters experience reversals.

The trick here is to make the reader forget that the characters on the page are inventions. One way to do this is to quickly present characters in their attempts to solve the problems and reversals of fortune with which they are afflicted. Another way to accomplish this goal is to show characters setting off on a quest, a perilous journey, or a new venture in which they will become at accelerated risk. Yet another approach is to endow the character with some physical or emotional flaw which they must struggle to overcome. Johnny Tremaine, the young, eponymous apprentice to Paul Revere, experiences an accident early on; molten silver is spilled on his hand, permanently fusing his thumb to his palm. In Tracy Chevalier’s novel, The Girl with the Pearl Ear Ring, a young peasant girl is forced to take a job as a maid when her artisan father is blinded by an exploding kiln.

Every short story and novel, regardless of how fantastic or quotidian, has to cope with this problem: Does the reader believe implicitly in the characters and situations? Step One in this remarkable alchemy from the dross of initial concept to the gold of finished work begins with the writer believing in the characters. From there, the author must portray characters behaving in ways that are feasible to them so that the reader not only does not question them and what they do but as well begins hoping none of the obstacles are too big to be overcome. Thus by indirection, the key to overcoming disbelief is vulnerability; no matter what the characters are vulnerable to--greed, love, fear, confusion, ambition--that vulnerability becomes a wedge that lifts the fence of plausibility, often just enough to allow the reader to crawl through.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't see where you were going with that but of course it makes sense- if we are invested in our expectations, we are vulnerable to the outcome. And the surest way to identify with a character is find ourselves wanting what they want- hoping for outcomes they hope for- letting ourselves admit that we care...

Querulous Squirrel said...

I have been exploring characters whose only desires are to be understood and whose history of misunderstanding draws the reader in towards fulfilling that understanding. I don't know if I'm making myself clear, but I'm realizing that what can look on the surface as a joke or an anecdote may have simply ended with the point of revelation. For me, action and expectation are almost invisible, maybe too invisible for most.