Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer

Dear Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer;

You may think you know your characters because, after all, you reached your pointed finger across the Sistine Chapel of your own blank screen, giving life to them, but until you know what a specific character wants, you know only the prime coat, the shadows, the basic forms.

Some instruction formats--classes, books--will suggest things such as flaws in the psyche or perhaps in the bodily function, a list or nervous tic or fear of spiders or, if you are the David Foster Wallace type, even a goldfish.  These classes neglect to let you in on a secret well known to lawyers and doctors:  Your characters will lie to you.  They will reveal what passes for intimate secrets of the sort a fellow traveler on a transatlantic flight might confess, but how do you know they are telling the truth?  Because you are a complete stranger whom they will never see again and they just couldn't resist the chance to let off a little steam that had been building up?  Not the way it works, pal.  Stop to think about the reading you've done, then make a list of characters who told lies.  True enough, they may be a bit like Blanche Dubois, who lied somewhat to herself.  And think about all the times you've been lied to by perfectly respectable sorts of your own creation, individuals every bit as reliable and truthful as their creator.

Need I remind you, dear writer friend, of Charles Baudelaire and his Flowers of Evil:


And yet, among the beasts and creatures all—
Panther, snake, scorpion, jackal, ape, hound, hawk—
Monsters that crawl, and shriek, and grunt, and squawk,
In our vice-filled menagerie's caterwaul,
One worse is there, fit to heap scorn upon—
More ugly, rank! Though noiseless, calm and still,
yet would he turn the earth to scraps and swill,
swallow it whole in one great, gaping yawn:
Ennui! That monster frail!—With eye wherein
A chance tear gleams, he dreams of gibbets, while
Smoking his hookah, with a dainty smile. . .
—You know him, reader,—hypocrite,—my twin!

Let's say that you don't outright lie, rather, like me, you are a tad forgetful of events and their circumstances; let us say you are merely arranging things to give them a bit of a better dramatic edge, one with serrations.  So okay, it's not as bad as Baudelaire, it's more like Ernest Dowsen's "I have been faithful to thee, Cynarra, in my fashion.

The point is, they aren't going to tell you everything.  They may in fact be playing you along, much as that remarkable young lady did to the victim in Saki's memorable short story, "The Open Window."  You are not, of course, going to be suspicious and skeptical of them all are you, because, well, you may have been burned once or twice, may even have believed the occasional politician when he or she promised you something that was more or less restructured after the election was history?

Instead of ranking them in the more classic folders of protagonist, antagonist, pivotal, messenger, and the like, you might instead try to rank them in terms of their hold on the truth in shall we say the Platonic sense.  And look at the fun you may have, pushing those with strong commitments to the truth to take a step or two beyond the self-imposed boundaries.  Think also of the delicious tension inherent in someone not well known for the truth being forced into a position where his or her reputation depends on it.  Ah, you say.  Story, you say.

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