Sunday, February 16, 2014

Riding the Range

How broad is your novel’s scope?  Many delightful novels never introduce social context. But the novels that haunt us usually capture individuals within their environment.

Consider the narrow scope of these characters interacting during a water aerobics class.

Not wanting a collision, Ella said, “Um, you’re drifting into my lane.”
The woman scowled. “Why does that matter?”
“Well, it matters if you kick me,” Ella answered. Hmm. No “whoops” or better yet, “I’m sorry.” What’s with this person?
“It’s Valentine’s Day. Lighten up.”
 “But you’re not my valentine,” Ella pointed out.
After a long pause, the woman extended her hand. “My name is Ann.  I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah, pleased to meet you, too.”

This conversation offers some intrigue, but without any range, because there’s no context beyond a pool. What happens if you add a detail that establishes a power imbalance? Is one of them a person of color, or a lesbian? Maybe one of these women is an attorney, the other a waitress. Does one of them have a disability?

If the two women differ, how does this affect the response to who says what? What shifts if this aerobics class is in Oregon or Mississippi, in a fancy health club or a Y, on one side of the tracks or the other?

Questions that reveal how society shapes individuals reveal social norms and biases. This invites readers to question their own expectations, assumptions, and biases. Ask readers to consider why someone’s losing, and—everyone wins.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland illustrates how background creates characters in the worlds of Calcutta, Rhode Island, and California. Beyond that, her novel explores how the attempted Naxalite revolution continued changing lives long after the Mao posters faded. Even in Lahiri’s capable hands, politics occasionally overrides plot and poetry. But that’s a worthwhile risk. Characters that represent the great forces that stymie or compel us aren’t just more credible. They’re more meaningful and memorable.

Tip: Take risks. Show us not just who your characters are, but what made them that way.

That’s the “real” stuff that novels are made of.

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