A small mercenary army of writing instructors have been making a good living for decades now, dispensing advice to hopeful neophytes, creating systems and structures, plans and pie charts, creating a step-by-step creativity that reduces a novel or screenplay to a useful object which can be taken apart and reassembled like a four-barrel carburetor or a military issue M4 carbine.
Aspiring authors have been constructing their stories using the ‘Hero’s Journey’ template, and setting the ‘second act reverse’ in their screenplays precisely at page 77 for so long now that you can almost read along with the Syd Field instructions or hear the didactic tones of the Robert McKee lecture as the predictable story unfolds. There are plenty of other sources for writing advice – MFA programs, on-line writers and editors, even the venerable correspondence courses that still poke along critiquing the unreadable and collecting their fees.
The trouble with all this advice is that much of it is useless, and most of it is wrong.
Three notions in particular have been bothering me lately, as I inch toward the half-way mark of my own new novel. I call them “The Toxic Narrative Template”, “The Write-What-you Know Fallacy” and “The Character Dossier.”
My father, quite a prominent screenwriter and playwright in his day, often spoke of publishing his own guide book, but it would have been too short to print. He believed that each story contained in its DNA, the perfect way it should be told. Pulp Fiction would not have worked as a straight chronological film; Atonement’s narrative trickery was fundamental not just to the plot but to the theme and spirit of the novel as well. To begin a small masterpiece like Room with the abduction of a young woman, her subsequent sexual captivity, her miscarriage and the eventual birth of her son would have rendered Emma Donoghue’s masterpiece – written entirely from the point of that child, starting on his fifth birthday -- into a banal piece of faux ‘true crime’ exploitation trash.
Heroes don’t need a journey and they don’t need an ‘arc’.
The archetypes popularized in the late 20th century have degenerated into tiresome clichés. The idea that protagonists must learn and grow through the course of the story is particularly irksome. Women as diverse as Scarlett O’Hara and Dagny Taggart change very little through the course of Gone with the Wind and Atlas Shrugged, respectively. After Scarlett figures out that she’s going to have to rely on herself to survive, and that happens fairly early in Margaret Mitchell’s epic story of the Civil War and the Reconstruction, it’s Scarlett’s self-blind, relentless consistency that makes her fascinating. She never does figure out that Rhett Butler is her true soul mate because she never comes to terms with the reality of her own tough, heartless and mercenary soul. As for Dagny – and whatever else you say about the book that features her in a starring role, Ayn Rand’s doorstop has been an unfailing stalwart of the Random House backlist for decades – any change in her attitudes or behavior would constitute a sort of secular sacrilege.
And it’s not just the distaff side of literature: who would be more different that jaded Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and retarded Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury? All they really have in common (apart from castration) is the lack of a character arc. Benjy is frozen at around age six and Jake Barnes ends up at the end of the book exactly where he started: unrequitedly in love with Brett Ashley, hanging out in Paris with his motley group of ex-pat pals.
Hemingway and Faulkner: the twin peaks of 20th Century American literature … and neither one of them relied on any of the conventional narrative templates.
You don’t have to, either.
Then there’s the old saw about ‘writing what you know’. Well, of course, on a certain level you’re always writing about yourself and your own experiences, your family, your childhood and the people around you. But that’s just the base material, the set of crude resources parceled out to you more or less at random. How you use those resources is up to you. Knowing how to make a science fiction story set on a fictional version of Mars believable, knowing how to research a historical epic and then use that information to inform your story without sinking it under the weight of regurgitated facts and statistics is a vital part of any robust writing life. Use your writing as an excuse to educate yourself as Tom Wolfe does. Go out into the wider world, try to understand it, then and bring it home and make it your own. If the Emperor Caligula or the King of some barbaric horde on some distant planet bears an uncanny resemblance to your own father, so much the better. The alternative – writing an endless series of disguised memoirs where Dad’s various crimes and misdemeanors are replayed over and over again – serves no one, not even you.
Finally, there’s the character dossier. Students are told to assemble a file on each character before presuming to dramatize their behavior or put words in their mouths. In grade school we all wrote ‘book reports’ describing the themes of each assigned novel, and listing each character’s ‘traits’ : so and so was selfish but funny, liked rap music and ate orange peel. Someone else was abused as a child, smoked too much, liked climbing trees and building custom furniture.
All of this satisfied the eighth grade curriculum requirements. It might even have made for a good personal ad, but it’s all worse than useless when you sit down to write a story. So how do writers invent characters? The process is a mystery with no clear guidelines and it requires relinquishing your list-making front brain and letting your unconscious mind do most of the work. Stephen King refers to that part of his mind as a sweatshop whose workers he relies on almost exclusively, so he respects them and defers to them.
I believe that all the characters you’ll ever create are already living in some deep part of your mind. They don’t need to be designed from the outside. Just give them names and let them grow in dark basement like mushrooms. Those inventories of habit and history you compile are just a way of pretending you have some control over the process – not unlike the outlines writers draw up, knowing full well that their book will start coming to life only when the plans are abandoned.
“Follow the accident.” John Fowles advised. “Fear the fixed plan”
This was all brought home to me in my own work this week. I have a new character named Julia Copenhaver. All I know about her is that she’s a high-end Nantucket interior decorator who will become my protagonist’s lover. Where does she come from, where did she go to school? Were her parents divorced, what flavor of ice cream does she like? Is she a vegetarian, a scientologist, a football fan, a bird watcher?
I have no idea.
All I had this morning was the name.
Some inchoate sense of the person it was attached to had been growing wordlessly inside me for the last few weeks. I didn’t try to itemize any facts about her, I just started writing. I had the idea that Harlan Mallory, the 60-year old artist, would be giving a lecture at the Nantucket Athenuem and that somehow Julia would have wormed her way in there somehow.
She’s pushy – I guess I knew that much.
Here’s what came out :
Harlan Mallory stood at the podium, upstairs in the great Hall at the Nantucket Atheneum, talking about his Viet Nam paintings and wondering how he had won this dreary trifeca of social obligations: visitors up from the city, an evening spent with the relentless Julia Copenhaver, and this excruciating bout of public speaking. As far as he could see, most of it was Julia’s fault. She had convinced him to give the lecture and even assembled the slides and set up the ‘power point’ presentation so that all he had to do was push a button and talk.
“It’ll be lovely,” she had said as they paced around the outside of his new guest cottage, the previous Saturday morning, deciding on a color for the clapboard siding. “You’ll be giving back to the community.”
He had laughed at that. “And what precisely, has this community ever given to me? Just asking.”
She seemed to deflate at little at his obtuse, masculine refusal to understand the simplest things. “This community? Not much I suppose -- a warm welcome, but you’re reasonably presentable. Paved roads and police protection, but you pay taxes for that. I was thinking more of the community as a whole, the human community, the society that nurtured you and allowed you to study your art and create it in peace and sell it for increasingly extravagant prices to the four hundred people who own half the wealth of the country, approximately three hundred and twenty two of whom spend at least some part of August on this island. You’ve had a lucky life. It’s seemly to show your appreciation in small ways. This would be one of them.”
There was no way to refuse at that point without looking like the bitter old crank that he actually was; but he did make one attempt, revealing that his old friends the Barudskys would be on-island that weekend: other plans, previous engagements, bad timing.
Julia wasn’t buying it. “Alfred Barudsky. He shows your work, doesn’t he? I’m sure he’d be delighted to see you talking about it. Maybe we can get him to introduce the lecture. I’ll take everyone out to dinner afterward.”
“I’m cooking for them that night. It’s an old tradition.”
“Great. I’ll do the dishes.”
So somehow she was coming to dinner at his house after this, as well. She was a force of nature, a human flood. You could pile up the sandbags but they weren’t going to help.
I stood up from my desk after writing that passage, pleased and startled, feeling like I’d just met someone new, someone I liked, someone who was more than a match for my dyspeptic protagonist.
I’m looking forward to getting to know her better. That’s what gets me up to write at five o’clock every morning. It’s an eccentric system, but I suspect most working writers use some version of it.
Give it a try, I guarantee you’ll have more fun.
And so will your readers.