Thursday, April 12, 2012

Making Things More Difficult for Your Characters

Because you were self-taught as a writer for so long, taking bits and pieces of technique from stories you’d read rather than from books instructing you how to write stories, you gave little overview to process other than the act of getting the material down with as much speed and deliberation as possible.  The first emphatic awareness of technique came as you began to understand that there were times when narrative would grow—characters would do things that might well surprise you.

Because you developed an early fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald (without understanding his social goals and dynamic), you “borrowed” his narrative habit of making observations about the human condition.  Many of his early observations remain with you to this day because of their acuity.  He was born in the nineteenth century, a few years before your father.

Fitzgerald was a generation before you in his grip on narrative convention, light years beyond you in observation, discipline, and use of his ability.  You were in some ways the embodiment of one of his more note worthy narrators, Nick Caraway, so far as naiveté was concerned.  You saw him tell in many cases where younger writers dramatized; because he did so with what you considered remarkable skill, you tried to narrate the same way.  Right for him, even in his less-than-successful attempts such as Tender Is the Night, wrong for you.  Wrong.


You were recruited at the university hire with the notion that at least one of your courses would deal with the need to recognize one’s narrative voice, how to identify, then expand on that expression of dramatic information.

Thus no surprise when, first quarter, the catalogue reads:

LITERATURE CS 102, Section 3

Instructor(s): Shelly Lowenkopf
Time(s): Tuesday and Thursday, 6:00 pm - 7:20 pm
Place(s): Bldg. 494, Rm. 143
You were led to believe the students, though in their early twenties, would be well read and confident in their information rather than arrogant with what passes for useful information, perhaps even defensive in the presentation of the information.

Your students’ abilities were not misrepresented.  Their alert, unsuspicious brightness was evident as you led them into a discussion of the nature of characters and how those characters are best brought to life.  For many of them, creation of character meant basing characters on some part of themselves.  A few admitted to branching out, reaching to borrowing a trait from some real life individual, another trait from someone else.  One or two even confessed (the word used advisedly because the admission was made with some sense of having perhaps overstepped a boundary.

How relieved they seemed when you, with some fustian, attempted to disabuse them.

You were in a large sense re-disabusing yourself, reminding yourself of what you’d had to come by through the trial and error of creating too many flat, inconsequential characters who scarcely had enough inner depth and turmoil to fill a single dimension.

The trust and relief you saw in the students’ eyes quickly shifted to nervousness and uncertainty as you spoke of the need to get in there and beat their characters up a bit, treat them as though the Fates or Reality had agendas against these individual characters.

This produced nervous laughter.

Wait, you thought.  Wait until they read the first two chapters of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.    Wait until, some time over the weekend, they’ll have read Bartleby the Scrivener.  Wait.

As it is, each of them quickly confessed to some personal moment of defining inner conflict where story took off, began flapping its wings, then achieved lift-off into personal drama that informs such writer tools as sense of humor, sense of irony, and some form of some sense that they have already to a degree been forged in a crucible.

They gathered their things in a thoughtful manner at the end of class, hanging around, not nearly so eager to take off into the night as they were last week.

No surprise to you how they reminded you of you at that age. No surprise to you how valuable a gift to be present as they discover the things you need to know every bit as much as they need to know these things.

“I get that you’re saying,” one of them ventured, “that they are more important than the story.  I need to see how that works.”

You, too.

You’re in this together.

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