Monday, March 24, 2014

Good vs. interesting characters

I've been meaning for some time to take up this discussion again. How does a writer make her readers feel empathy, or compassion (maybe the same thing, maybe not) for her characters? The question goes hand-in-hand with recent discussions of how/why/whether characters must be "likable." I'm glad that conversation is finally well underway; it feels like I've been grousing about how stupid that terminology is for years. And one thing I never really grasped till recently was how gendered the "likable" requirement is. Women characters, it seems, must be "good," while men are only required to be interesting. Let's make "interesting" our universal standard from now on, shall we?*

On Glimmer Train's website, Geoff Wyss writes: "[M]y favorite characters in literature are those mysteriously human enough to startle me into empathy. It's that word mystery that seems to be the point: The characters that most powerfully evoke my compassion are the ones who, paradoxically, most resist being known." This resistance to being known is precisely what makes the characters appear realistic, because, Wyss points out, "we don't understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our husbands and wives, not even close."

I agree. Compassion and empathy arise, first and foremost, out of curiosity. You may never "like" a character or a person, much less understand them, but you can find him--or let's say, for the sake of advancing our feminist agenda, her--interesting. And, at least for fiction, that's enough. Better than enough--necessary.

Wyss further addresses another little peeve of mine, that old saw that "story begins with character" (perhaps a mistranslation of the maxim "character is plot," which Wyss restates here). What that *cannot* mean is first constructing a character outside of any context, or, in Wyss's words, "monstering characters together from a charnel pile of traits—'Let's make him bigoted but sentimental, obsessed with film noir, and hypochondriacal'—and sending them into my stories with their stitch-lines showing." I swear, in writing workshops, I've been told to do exactly this, and it does not work. For me, character and context evolve together in a close, unending dialetic. Personally I like to start with the situation and see who shows up there; then I turn the character back to face the situation and see what she does to it, what it does to her in turn, and on and on.

But I have still created monsters from time to time. In fact, early in writing my first novel, I was hell-bent on creating a female villain, who is now the story's hero. I found I'd assembled Jackie from an inorganic collection of "traits" to serve my predetermined theme, and she turned out both unbelievable and boring. So I gave her some of my own physical characteristics. And all of a sudden, I was much more concerned with how someone might come to think in these ways I totally disagreed with. I didn't like being a straw woman very much at all, and as a result, that character started insisting on her own mystery and autonomy.

*I'm talking about fiction here. All real people have to be good, according to my definition.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thoughts on re-watching Season One of Battlestar Galactica after 10 (!) years

So we've been re-watching Battlestar Galactica.

1.) The rebooted series started in 2003. Just think about that. I feel like we watched it, oh, five or six years ago. Not freakin 10-plus. Jesus.

2.) This is a post-9-11 show if ever there was one. Everything about it is 9-11, 9-11, 9-11. Terrorism. Torture. Religion. Realization that "we" can't always tell who "they" are, and that "we" don't always have the moral upper hand. General dread and claustrophobia.

3.) So far, the show holds up really, really well, apart from a few things (see 4, below). For the most part the acting and dialog are excellent. Olmos rules. Michael Hogan still possesses the most outsized Canadian accent I have ever heard.

4.) Way, way too much of Boomer and Helo running around in the rain on Caprica. Now as then, it feels like the directors said, "We can't resolve this plotline till Episode 13, so, um, OK, run that way for awhile, and now run this way, and that'll be it for this episode." Novelists have something of an advantage in cases like these; if we have a plotline we don't want to resolve till later, we can just *not write about it* for awhile, or just mention it cryptically or briefly every so often. On a TV series we have to be visually reminded of these characters' existence and what they are doing--and if they're just biding their time on behalf of the storytelling, that shows.

5.) How does one portray a butch, straight female character in a typically male profession? I remember the ruckus (and adulation) when BSG fans learned the new Starbuck would be a woman. For the most part, she's an appealing character, believable in her toughness ... except that we are given to understand that, as with all women, that toughness hides a deep vulnerability. Every now and again we're treated to the sight of Starbuck crying or crumpling into a ball and sort of squealing. We also see her in an evening gown, knocking the space socks off Apollo. Do "tough" male characters show vulnerability in any similar ways, or just pour themselves another drink and/or race off on their motorcycles? Do these brief bursts of stereotypical feminine behavior add dimension to Starbuck, or reassure us that she's really a little girl at heart? And straight! Don't forget straight! Though having a butch woman turn out to *be* straight also challenges stereotypes, I think in 2003 they were more worried about having one of our heroes be gay. OK, they're still worried about that in 2014.

That is all for now. Galactica out.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why writers must become better actors

For two reasons.

One: writing is quite a bit like acting. Your characters inhabit you, of course, but you also inhabit your characters. As you write them, you see the world through their eyes, acting and reacting as they would. For this reason alone, it seems to me, learning a bit more about how actors practice their craft can only benefit writers. How do actors access and express those parts of themselves that coincide with their characters'? How can you convey emotions and concepts indirectly yet effectively through body language, voice, pacing, etc.--all of which you can convert into words?

Two: at some point in your life, you are most likely going to have to read your work in public. And by "read," I actually mean "perform." For a long time, it has been something of a mystery to me why people go to author readings. I mean, we can read the book ourselves, right? So what's the value in having something read to us, especially in the rushed, hushed, even apologetic monotone that too many authors employ? Does having the words come out of the author's mouth really add anything to the story?

It can, if the author interprets the story through her performance. Now, here come the caveats: we are writers, not actual actors. We can't be expected to put on costumes and cavort around the narrow and labyrinthine confines of, say, a bookstore. However, we can learn to read from our work to help the audience better understand and--this is no small thing--more fully enjoy our presentation. We can learn to use pace, timing, eye contact, gesture (within reason), voice modulation, and other techniques to convey not just the words but the meaning of the story as we understand it.* This is why series in which actors, not authors, read short stories--such as Word for Word in San Francisco or the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles--are so damn fun.

And this is also why I've signed up for some private coaching from actor and teacher Valerie Weak as I prepare to read at various venues this summer. Having experienced just a single session thus far, I can say that learning to perform one's fiction is, first of all, exhausting. The level of concentration required just about drained me, to the point where I spent the rest of the day on the couch (not the casting couch, ha, ha). However, as I worked to inhabit, not just quote, my characters, I began to discover layers of emotional nuance in them that I hadn't actually been aware of. As Valerie told me, even small physical gestures can help you unlock the voice and meaning of the words--even if the audience can't see the gestures, which a podium might obscure. These discoveries alone have amazed and even thrilled me. I can now say I'm truly looking forward to upcoming readings, rather than mildly fearing them.

So, I say, fellow writers, get your actor on!

*Which is not to say that writers own the meanings of their stories, or that public readings serve the purpose of instilling a particular interpretation in the audience's mind. We're just offering some possibly helpful or provocative insights, which the reader can then respond to at his leisure.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bona Fide at AWP -- through Amy Tan's lens!

Look who's front and center in this Twitter pic from Amy Tan!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Learning to trust the laughter

In selecting parts of my novel to read at events, I've been running up against a particular prejudice I didn't realize I harbored. It's actually really stupid. A lot of times, when I read my work to an audience, they laugh. Now, a lot of my work is satirical, which implies that if my audience laughs, I've succeeded. Besides, I personally like funny books, though my idea of funny may not be everyone's. Dostoevsky is funny. So is Richard Powers's new book, Orfeo. I didn't expect that, because these guys have long worn the mantel of Serious Artists who write about Serious Subjects.

So why does it make me nervous when people laugh? Because deep down, I fear the laughter means my work isn't serious. If you're laughing, you're making light of something, evading, skating on the surface rather than diving in.

But this isn't true! George Saunders talks about this all the time, possibly because the question comes up for him, too: are you really "just" making jokes? He recently said in Salon:

[Y]ou can’t play it large unless you play it small. And you also can’t eradicate one or the other. An amateur eradicates one or the other. A real writer would say, “No, both exist. Of course they do. Serious and funny. Hunger and satiation, they exist.” In a certain sense, you just have to see where you are in that cycle, and the story is an entity and response to itself.
The complexity is in saying, “Oh, this story is so funny. Is it a little too funny? Is it too silly?” And the writer goes, “Maybe.” Boom! And then something really significant happens, and the reader goes, “Oh, I misjudged you.” That’s a wonderful artistic feeling, when you’ve said to the artist, “I’m sorry, I misjudged you.”

There are different kinds of funniness, of course. What Saunders is getting at is that life's staggering complexity encompasses laughter as well as earnestness, and that one powerfully can set off the other--or incorporate it. Laughter isn't just a way of dismissing something--it can be a reaction of surprised recognition, a sign of empathy between reader and author. It can also contain deep darkness. I remember laughing hysterically with my mom at my dying father's bedside. But that's another story.

The point is, trust the laughter. Your own, and your reader/listener's.

Anyway, here's my cat, Bella, sitting on page proofs of Bigfoot and the Baby.