Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Copycat

Your approach to storytelling has you playing out a narrative of events in which one or more characters find themselves struggling against mounting internal and external forces. These pressures expand to the point of combustion, where many real life individuals would no longer be able to function.

Somewhere along the way, you became a ware of a type of existential point system where various events were awarded points. One point for a death in the immediate family, another from a job loss, another still for falling victim to some significant illness or disability. There are other points within the system: breakup of a romantic relationship, significant rejection related to a life goal, a significant embarrassment or humiliation, other setbacks and reversals associated with being alive and thriving.

The system reminds you in a way of the point system applied by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to its licensed drivers. X number of points in Y amount of time and your driver's license is suspended for upwards of six months, running the gamut all the way to ultimate revocation of driving privileges.

In this more existential point system, an individual who accrues too many points in a short time span will experience some detectable form of shutdown or breakage.

With this in mind, you begin with the equivalent of Fate tapping a character on the shoulder with a warning. You try to construct characters who are too involved in personal goals to pay heed. As the pages of narrative progress, so do the setbacks and reversals.

You write to see what your characters will do. They are thus similar to the laboratory animals scientists use in controlled experiments. One of your favorite nonfiction authors to come your way early in your editorial career, James Pinckney, was more than a practicing M.D., he was also a scientist, given to using lab animals who were in one way or another afflicted with some condition he was trying to investigate. 

His goal was to find ways in which these afflicted animals could be treated to overcome their acquired burden. He spoke to you of laboratory supply companies and their ability to provide such animals, stress mice, he called them. One can, in theory, order dozens of stress animals, say rabbits, each of which has been deprived of a valuable substance or infused with some condition, say cancer or opioid addiction.

Character as stress mouse. Excellent, and thanks. You were on your way, stressing characters, undoubtedly creating situations where you in real time felt vulnerable, looking for solutions or ways of accommodation.

Such aspects are primary in your creation of your own characters and, as a teacher, editor, and reviewer, your ability to see the goals and stresses of the works of other writers. But let's not forget about another element you need to address if your characters are to have any chance at reaching a viable state of believability. You need to have intimate knowledge of how each of these literary stress mice behaves and sounds.

Perhaps one character per narrative can sound and behave as you do. But please, no more. In past narrative ventures, you'd seen how most of the characters, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, reminded of you. For a time, it was unsettling, then, as the implication set in, uncomfortable. You need to be on guard against finding yourself alone in a room filled with persons who look, talk, and think the way you do. You'd never get in a word, and one of the reasons you compose is to find out what you think and, even more important, feel.

You're alert when telling jokes or relating your opinion, to the sound of your narrative, the attention being paid, and the overall effect of your words on the listener. This is only a small step away from being alert to the effects your characters will have on readers.

Didn't you undertake a slow, deliberate, close reading of Charles Dickens, a writer you respect rather than admire, for just such a reason. Many of Dickens' characters have found their way into print dictionaries and in greater length yet in online reference sites.

You can use your voice and vocabulary and opinions when you speak in classes or at lectures or within social occasions among friends. But you can't use your voice or vocabulary when writing fiction--only your characters are entitled to do that. Since you are more or less their manager or director, you must be alert to see that they speak for and as themselves, perhaps even to the point of nursing resentments against such authoritarian sources as yourself.

True enough, the story will reflect your tastes because of your casting and your choice of narrative. But you've come to believe the individual story has its own voice and personality, otherwise it is no longer story; it is an impression or cover of someone else's story.

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