Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Giving your characters an inner life

This lovely piece about James Gandolfini got me thinking about literary characters and what makes them seem real to us. My former students know I've been grinding this ax a long time. But this is another way that writing fiction very much resembles acting: in both cases, you can't reveal everything there is to know about a character. Good characters (like good stories, according to Hemingway) are icebergs; much more of them exists below the surface than above. And, let's face it, that's true of actual human beings as well. That's why, in fact, fictional characters who seem to have a lot going on inside them feel more real than those whose thoughts, beliefs, and actions are always transparent and aligned.

So, keeping Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in mind as an example, here are some ways we fiction writers can make our characters more real--as opposed to, God help us, more likeable.

  • Embrace contradiction. Tony was a wildly violent man who fretted over his violent tendencies, took his daughter to visit colleges, and became quite fond of a family of ducks. We all fret about certain characteristics we possess; we don't think they're quite honorable or consistent or helpful, yet we can't quite smooth ourselves out. Your characters can be the same way: an elementary school teacher who fears children, a doctor who's addicted to cocaine ... Let them be aware of these contradictions without knowing how to resolve them.
  • Use interior monologue. The psychiatrist in The Sopranos was a device than enabled us to hear what went on inside Tony's head. In fiction, we can just write that stuff out. Where else but in fiction do we have direct access to another person's thoughts? Take advantage of that opportunity. After all, I think, therefore I am: that's how I know that I, at least, am real. Of course, you can overdo interior monologue or use it as an excuse to tell rather than show. The test is whether it reveals character, rather than explaining it.
  • Let characters wonder what each other thinks. It's my sense (isn't it yours, too?) that we humans spend a lot of time wondering what other people think. It might be one reason why some of us read fiction--to at least have the sense that we're inside someone else's head. So a realistic fictional character would probably have this desire also--to know what her husband is really thinking about when he shrugs and says "nothing." Our common, everyday tragedy is that none of us can ever really know this for certain. In their world, your characters live this tragedy, too.
  • Explore emotion. As Gandolfini said, let your characters really feel emotions. Those emotions can be confusing, "wrong," in conflict with one another, etc. They can explode volcanically, or the character can work hard at suppressing them, but the emotions themselves never go away.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The "broken windows" theory of feminism?

I haven't read Lean In yet, because, until recently, I felt it didn't apply to me. I actually do work in corporate America, though as a consultant, and offsite, and for a small, woman-led company where all but one employee is a woman. Also, though I used to be "in management," I have since leaned out on that score altogether. I have determined that I do not like managing others. In my case, I would argue that this is not an entirely gender-based decision; my father always refused leadership positions throughout his career, preferring to focus on "the work itself." My mother stopped working outside the home after I was born. That is a whole other roiling kettle of fish and worms and what have you, which I will perhaps address elsewhere.

Anyway, I'm now thinking Lean In might have relevance for me, and for a lot of us, after all. As Frank Bruni put it in a recent column, we've received a deluge of reminders of "how often women are still victimized, how potently they’re still resented and how tenaciously a musty male chauvinism endures." But I still find myself shrugging my shoulders, thinking "what do you expect?," when I encounter such resentment and chauvinism personally. For me, such experiences feel like "no big deal" in the scheme of things. Millions of women deal with much harsher forms of belittlement and victimization than I do. Yet why shouldn't those of us who are relatively privileged stand up against those little, supposedly meaningless slights? Why wouldn't this lead, ever so quietly and gradually, to improvement, in the same way that repairing broken windows in crime-ridden neighborhoods seems to lead to a reduction in crime? Why not chip away, in our own small way, at the gigantic edifice of subtly demeaning rhetoric that we all participate in?

I'm thinking, for instance, of a moment a few months back when I went to observe a class of second-graders. The teacher introduced me to the class, and quickly asked me if I went by "Mrs." or "Ms." She actually might have offered "Miss" as the second option; I didn't quite hear. I have a Ph.D., so my correct honorific is "Doctor." But I felt I could not say that without sounding like a horrible snot. I don't use my husband's last name, so I can never be a Mrs. That left me with "Ms.," which I chose, hitting the "zzz" sound as hard as I comfortably could. The teacher introduced me, and the whole stupid moment was over in a second.

Except. Those second graders didn't get to see a woman called "Doctor." And I dismissed my own accomplishment in earning this degree, because I was afraid of looking obnoxious and possibly making the teacher herself feel diminished.

I gather that Lean In, though more focused on corporate settings, addresses these kinds of seemingly small snafus that professional women get entangled in all the time. Trying to avoid discomfort, our own and others' (and others' discomfort further contributes to our own, doesn't it?), we "lean out" of situations where we could be setting forth our qualifications and furthering our own--and other women's--interests.

Even now, I feel somewhat foolish for writing this post. Who cares what that class of second-graders thought my title was? I was only there for fifteen minutes; none of them will even remember me. And I did a nice thing, didn't I, by not contradicting their teacher in front of them?

But all these little stupid moments add up.