Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Latecomer's Guide to Fiction

For the sake of this argument, you will need characters, at least four, perhaps five or even six.  These characters are to be diverse for the argument to have any value you can take away for future use and for the sense of having learned something in this instance.

In consequence, you arrange a cattle call, a diverse group of individuals from thirties through sixties or perhaps into a wiry, edgy seventy.  No cliches, please.  All ethnicities welcomed.  LGBTG welcomed, as well, biracial ok.

The fun begins as you articulate these individuals, wrapping coils of individuality about their essential armature.  You begin to recognize, if you haven't been too careful, how these made-up individuals share similar core values, have strong preferences for, say, mac and cheese, or for Cesar salads without anchovy.

No good.  Not yet.  you want polar opposites, their potentials for chemistry leading you to suspect the chemistry will be charged with negativity or suspicion, perhaps even overt bias.

After a time, if you've done your casting well, you recognize how this negative chemistry among your ensemble, even though they were all direct products of your imagination, leads you to "hear" a particular tone for the narrative, the words you will use to describe their behavior, and the words you will under no circumstances use.

With that in mind, you might even have two or more recognize a grudging--repeat, grudging--respect for one or two others in the ensemble.  You put some time and thought into this form of ambiguity where someone who is, for instance, a homophobe, comes to the grudging state of respect, bordering on acceptance, of another character who is open with his or her gayness.

As a part of the argument on which this exercise of casting an ensemble of characters is based, you now add one final character, male or female, your choice of race and sexual preference, your added choice of whether this latecomer is an agreeable or disagreeable sort, helps little old ladies across the street or kicks at stray dogs. 

This latecomer is a key element in much fiction, the complete stranger or a person who used to be from here, but has gone elsewhere, seeking and finding a modicum of success, but now forced back here, to the place of birth, where she or he fit well with one aspect of the local society and continues to be regarded that way by the other locals among the cast.Guide to 

Beyond the potential for a spirited story, this cast needs a plausible reason for spending time together, otherwise their very differences will seem managed.  Work-related is a good place to start.  Or perhaps patients and staff in a rehab hospital.  Possibly students and faculty, passengers, not to forget a going-on seven-hundred year old framework, pilgrims on their way to a cathedral in southeast England, intent on paying their respects to the remains of an early Christian martyr.

Next step:  Set them in motion.  Give them an assignment, a goal, a task.  Now begin to apply the pressure of deadline, micromanagement, excessive critical response to their behavior, overt suspicion that they may be unfit to accomplish the task assigned to them.  Then continue to apply pressure, culminating on the metaphoric equivalent of changing the dimensions of the field on which they are playing.

Now cause one of the ensemble of characters to take a stand that will cause additional rancor among the members of this imaginary cast.  You have stacked the dramatic deck for maximum rancor, suspicion, and alienation.

The argument starting this cattle call for characters is a battle you've faced since your late teens.  You have to this day severe difficulties thinking story from the plot outward.  This is the argument you indulge each time those five of words, "Wouldn't it be interesting if--?" come tumbling out of the pockets of your curiosity, just before laundry time.

How, your argument begins, could such an exercise not produce a significant enough eruption or discovery to result in a story?

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