Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Where It Happens, If It Affects Someone, and How It Is Spoken of

landscape--the physical, moral, political, ethical, psychological arena in which a given story is set; the lowest common thematic denominator of a dramatic narrative. Accordingly a story could be set in Revolutionary France, the guillotine blades still dripping blood, but the narrative instead is about individuals who had no sides in the Revolution nor cared about the consequences one way or another, thus rendering the landscape one of indifference, ignorance, or perhaps even some form of indulgence. Landscape decor allows the writer to show through direct or ironic intervention a sense of what the population of the story was feeling, thinking, doing.

Landscape is a core sampling of zeitgeist (See); the sense of the time, place, and denizens thereof. Landscape cannot--nor should not--help itself; it is the writer's personality and attitude, bleeding through the scenery. Example: The enormous sprawl that is Los Angeles represents to many writers a Dante-esque version of Purgatory conflated with Inferno, emerging from their writings as a landscape of crowded freeways, drive-by shootings, PhDs and out-of-work actors doomed to waiting tables or delivering pizzas, the faux yogic posture of freedom from arthritis. The characters, settings, and attitudes resident in this landscape will emerge with some sort of cynical tinge. The visions of L.A. cherished by other writers will emerge as eternally bright, undershot with the camaraderie of hope, shared dreams, and the sun-baked sizzle of success at every major intersection.

Five hundred words or less: What was the landscape of Spain when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote? What was Don Quixote's relationship to his landscape? What were the landscapes of England and Scotland during the writing life of Sir Walter Scott? Compare and contrast the World War II landscapes of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead with Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions.

Whatever your setting or time frame, it is your landscape; do not undercut it with attempts at objectivity or floridity any more than you would with a character. The reader can tell from the way a character walks, speaks, behaves, what that character's internal landscape is. Similarly, the reader absorbs your Los Angeles, your feudal Spain, your own sense of the Normans versus the Anglo-Saxons in Ivanhoe


Why should we care?--the essential, underlying paradigm for the reader of fiction; the link between concern for characters in a narrative and the surrender of disbelief in the plausibility of the narrative; one or more reasons why a reader will empathize with the characters in a story.

The number of partially read books under the bed, the agonized browse of the shelves at libraries, book stores, and paperback racks at airports and markets, the Sirens' song, luring us to a particular section in a display of fiction--all these are iterations of the question about our individual tendency to care for one type and not another, for one character and yet not someone materially similar. Why Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and not Jay Gatz and Daisy Buchanan? What draws us to one face in the literary crowd while simultaneously allowing us to barely nod recognition to another.

The equation begins with the filter, the writer who, in the first place, draws the character forth from the experiential sludge in order to set him or her afoot on the terrain of story. The writer's first obligation is to empathize with the character, no matter what the individual may have done awake, in dream or fantasy, or in dreamless sleep. Liking the character is not an issue, but disliking the character is. Knowing in advance that Character A will lie to Character B (whom you do quite like), perhaps even cheat or steal from Character B is no excuse for the dislike. We will more likely care for Character A if we can appreciate Character A's goals and motives, even to the point of recognizing some of Character A's goals in our readerly self.

Where it begins for us as Reader is when we want Character B to get the prize, to achieve the end, the goal, the pizza with anchovy. Character B has to want something to a tipping point degree, drawing us along with the inertia of being in motion.
There is often no explanation for why a reader will identify with one lead character in a dramatic situation and not with another in a reasonable facsimile of the dramatic situation, thus the writer must accept that not all readers will care about his characters but must himself care bout the welfare, trials, and tribulations of the character as a sine qua non for any reader caring about the character. Helpful questions for the writer to ask about each character: Who is he/she? What does he/she want? What is he/she willing to do to accomplish the goal? What will he/she do if frustrated? What happens if he/she achieves the goal, then experiences buyer's remorse?


dialect--a variant form of a language, associated with a class, cultural or regional uses; a distinction given to a character to further define the character's social, cultural, and educational dimensions; an attempt to capture a regional, social, or ethnic tendency through spoken language.

Individuals from different parts of the world and throughout history have had different speech patterns, class identifiers, and expressions, the argument goes, and so why not use these in narrative to the same degree that any other relevant detail is used? One argument for moderation in the use of dialect is to observe the way excessive, court reportorial emphasis on detail leaves dust bunnies, the charming and worthwhile Uncle Remus being one example of how black dialect and speech patterns don't hold up very well in fact, and even less so when placed in contrast with contemporary tropes from Walter Mosley's character, Easy Rawlins, holds up and is likely to.

On a more general level, removing the occasional terminal g from gerunds might have an evocative effect of a larger dialect or lack of formal education, but removing all terminal g's might call such attention as to point the finger at the device. True enough, upper classes in England once used aint matter-of-factly in conversation (see Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey detective series) simultaneously with a middle-class American campaign to rid the language of it. Thus does dialect, slang, patois, and such coarse depictions of, say, Native Americans through such tropes as Ugh! and Great White Father, him say-um... defeat its purpose by providing self-parody.

Moderation is a good pole star here, so too is trying to capture the metrics and cadence of a dialect, using but not overusing regionalisms. Also worth note, the dialect used by the late Boston crime and thriller writer, George V. Higgins, particularly in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which Higgins had some of his characters speaking in what was represented as Boston Irish working class, but was no such thing--it was Higgins' impression of Boston Irish working class English. Reading it, few would doubt the obvious shift away from Standard English and Boston Upper Class usage, thus the tail began to wag the dog; readers assumed that the Boston Irish spoke the way Higgins' characters do. Yet another gifted combination of dialect and regionalisms may be found in the suspense fiction of Elmore Leonard. Many of Leonard's characters would not score well on intelligence tests although they often have natural shrewdness, ambition, dreams, and plans reflecting their shrewdness, dreams, and ambitions. Leonard's dialogue and narrative are reflective of his characters; also clear is the fact that Leonard is not patronizing them.

Dialect can be a helpful tool if used with moderation and inventiveness, ever alert to keep respect for the characters at the highest priority and a watchful eye for racial, gender, and class cliche.

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