Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When Irony Becomes Sarcasm and Agenda Becomes Muddied

After you have explored the relationships among your characters--and make no mistake about it, you need to have a keen sense of that dynamic--it is instructive to spend some moments considering another,more abstract and strategic relationship.  That would be the places where irony overlaps with subtext.

Irony suggests someone, more often than not a character, being out of the loop, not getting or not understanding some dynamic or relationship most of the rest of the characters and, indeed, most of the readers get.  Under some circumstances then, irony can be a kind of conspiracy between the author, one or more characters, and most readers.  True enough, there are some novels you reread, seeing within them things you hadn't "got" last time through, and so you were on the rat tail of the curve, orchestrated by the author and one or more characters.  Simplistic but fair example, Sherlock Holmes, stringing out his line of thinking.  Ah, the times you had to go back over that.  And ah, the times you felt smug for puzzling out the solution to a mystery or working out the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in The New York Times. 

Other examples of irony come when characters do not realize they are in agreement or, even more humorously, do not realize when they are not in agreement...

Subtext comes into the picture in strikingly similar ways, often ironic ways, in which, for instance, all characters believe they are right and behave as though the others have conceded their "rightness," or when characters believe they have a better understanding of a situation because of their imagined social, moral,educational, or political status.

How lovely to take a character out of his or her comfort zone, causing said character to feel vulnerable.  Lovelier still if the reader can see the irony in the character being removed from a comfort zone, doing better in it that he or she could have done under ordinary circumstances within the comfort zone.

Irony comes most often from stating the reverse of what is intended, to the point where the reader  sees the disconnect, thus it is a gap between reality and apparent reality, one or more characters caught in the struggle of the disconnect.

Irony, when overstated, becomes sarcasm.  When you tell a person, for instance, I could not expect you to know that, you are overemphasizing the fact that you most surely do expect the person to know very well what you are talking about.  And when you tell someone, Far be it for me to tell you this, you are in effect saying you of all others have some right to tell said person that thing.  Similarly, I hate to have to tell you this is an ironic way of saying that you very much enjoy revealing this particular observation to this particular person.

Subtext is that no-person's land between what is felt and the context of what is actually said in relation to the feeling.  I'd love to go with you.  Well, I'd love to do X, if too emphatic, moves from subtext to sarcasm.

Does the fact of a character saying "I can't do this any more," reflect irony, sarcasm, or subtext?  Depends on the magic word here, which is agenda.  If characters are engaged in any kind of interaction, we as readers may reasonably deduce agenda.  In fact, we want to be able to discern agenda.  We also want to be able to discern the unspoken relationships between characters from which we deduce their agendas and subtext behavior.

Does character A truly like character B, or is he playing a game of manipulation?  If the answer is yes, what is the intent--or objective--of this manipulation?

Time and intimacy will tell, thus you have to sniff it out, leave clues for the reader, allow your characters to make mistakes, but no more gloat over them than you would chastise yourself when you make a mistake.

Stories that focus on characters who make mistakes in judgement and performance take on several layers of greater nuance than characters who cling to the plot points as though they were life preservers.

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