Sunday, August 30, 2015

Too Good to Be True?

How good can a good protagonist really be? In a recent N.Y. Times “Bookends,” Thomas Mallon rightly observed that, “No one has ever preferred Amelia to Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, or Melanie to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.”

Tip: Perfectly good is perfectly—boring.

Good protagonists must be morally sound, but definitely troubled and definitely rebellious about constraint. Too selfish makes them unpalatable. But too perfect and they swiftly become at best uninteresting and at worst mildly self-righteous. To inspire and excite, protagonists need to get going with enough oomph to offer:

~ Fire.
This might be the main ingredient. A good protagonist has a great deal to gain or lose. Passion makes people care enough to act, screw up, and have another go. That journey makes fiction fiction.      

~ Arc.
If your character starts perfect, where can she go? The fun of fiction is watching someone conquer something, whether that’s the snotty guy with the huge estate (Pride and Prejudice), the power of death (The Fault in Our Stars), the mystery of the genetic code (The Gold Bug Variations), anyone who opposes the Borgias (Blood and Beauty), or an early crop of crooked bankers and lawyers (A Conspiracy of Paper).

~ Voice.
Especially in first person, the protagonist must be charming, funny, dramatic, and mysterious. Something very much out of the ordinary. Often someone with passionate opinions, but a nice sense of humor about them.

~ Desire.
This needn’t be sensual, just a motivation for action. Too much politeness, modesty, resignation, even stoicism can be unappetizing. If you think everyone and everything is fine, you won’t take many risks. This might be a terrific way to live. Just not in a novel.

~ Credibility.
As a friend recently said, we’re all “emerging.” Anyone delighted with his or her “goodness” is too arrogant (and naïve and misinformed) to really be that good. Real people are flawed people. Preferably a bit honest about it. This goes for protagonists, too.

~ Inconsistent consistency.
That’s another way to spell “credibility.” If your protagonist has a weakness (and your protagonist must), then this might generate a succession of similar mistakes. But if your protagonist always repeats exactly the same mistake, or never makes one at all, readers won’t believe, won’t care, or both.

~ Resolution.
Nice people can be very accepting, very forgiving, very tolerant—very lovely to be around but not to read about. Protagonists judge and act. That’s the source of story.

A good protagonist is one who’s good enough—and no better.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Avoid Accidents!

Accidents can work wonders. People meet and fall in love, and perhaps if no asteroid hit the earth about 65 million years ago, no one could write or read this blog. But accidents and fiction are badly matched.

Plenty of accidents annoy or destroy. We leave the bread in the oven too long, saw lumber a quarter inch too short, delete favorite photos while making space in the Cloud, blurt painful things that never entirely disappear. Only the last one drives fiction. The others are entirely realistic and could deepen plot. Yet something’s missing.

Try this. “Prudence was minding her own business, when suddenly she decided to visit her mother’s grave, quit her job, end her marriage. Or she didn’t decide a thing, yet suddenly got struck by lightning, or a teen toying with his new handgun, or a car careening onto the sidewalk.”

Poor Prudence. Poor reader of a novel about Prudence. Suddenly? That enhances fiction about as much as “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”

Fiction traces motive. Why suddenly end her marriage, and why’s she ruminating during the storm, especially when a random car veers onto the sidewalk? Why watch her ruminate at all?

Active choices have driven fiction for centuries. Even a novel as blatantly moralistic as Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” (1740, subtitled “Virtue Rewarded “) examines motive. Squire B doesn’t make his move until his mom dies, and Pamela mistrusts her supposed benefactor. After probing human behavior and its result, the novel concludes both happily and morally.

Today’s readers might not call this book “licentious,” balk at class difference, or applaud Pamela’s obsession with chastity. But they might all agree that the book’s core is what the character must learn, just as Darcy and Elizabeth must unlearn pride and prejudice in the novel of that title. Some things never change.

How much can characters learn from random events, however tragic? Such events reveal heroism and weakness. Sometimes they reveal whom we really love or what really matters. Yet fiction’s most intriguing messages involve dilemmas, human choices, and their resolutions. So you might try the following:

~ Watch for the word “suddenly.” Is it an easy solution to a fictional issue you’d be better off solving?

~ Beware external events as plot pivots. Yes, war, tornadoes, and forest fires change lives. But can they contribute as much as revealing human psychology through—human psychology?

~ Trace the consequences of decisions. In real life ambivalence determines lots of outcomes; we simply refuse to decide—and something results because of that. But how powerful is inaction in fiction? How powerful are outcomes based on external forces rather than personal choices?

The greatest stories trace not battles, but character response to them; not famine, but character response to it, not poverty, but character response to it. Does your novel rely on unfortunate or tragic happenstance, or on the outcome characters earn or fail to? We look to fiction for what life doesn’t provide.

Tip: Accidents are part of life but serve minimal purpose in fiction.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Metaphor: Apt or Inept? Part III

Some of us think in metaphor. Is that you? If so, put on the brakes. Not everything is, or needs to be, a metaphor! Sometimes readers just want to know what it is—not what it’s like or represents.

Never think in metaphor? Lots of writers fall in this category. If that’s you, let go. Dream. Compare. Distill. Imagine. Remember. The world overflows with fish in the sea, ants at a picnic, stars in the sky, and so on. All those clichés are simply used-up, non-implicit metaphors, dead because we’ve heard them till we’re ready to you-know-what. Those particular dead metaphors are similes. That’s simply an indirect metaphor containing “like” or “as.” Often, metaphor becomes simile from an instinctive awareness that the comparison is flimsy.

Whether your world brims with metaphor or is empty of it, you can become more adept. It’s as easy as baking a cake—from a mix. Here are three adept examples to admire:

Dark figures hurried past; silent men loaded long trailer trucks, huge tomcats crouched in somnolent wariness in all the shadows and a dog clawed at a box, its stomach sucked in with hunger and frustration.  And then a cat, its belly sagging with young, ambled over and brushed her leg with its tail—the one warm gesture in a cold country. — Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones

In Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, a character sees “that our lives as a family—no, our life as a family, our single life as an eight-legged graceful animal alive under a single pelt—was over.”

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, begins with:

the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America.  On her journey she cooed to the swan:  “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.  Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!  She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan--a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”
But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory…. Now the woman was old.  And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

As John Drury notes, metaphor “has to make imaginative sense, however surreal or weird it may be…We don’t want our metaphors, any more than our jokes, explained to us. We want to get them immediately.” Their mystery is part of their charm. 

Dorianne Laux suggests that we

Imagine a literal world, in which nothing was ever seen in terms of anything else.  Falling blossoms wouldn’t remind you of snow.  A dancer’s sensuous grace wouldn’t resemble the movements of a lover; the shape of a cloud would never suggest a horse or a sailing ship.  If such a world were possible, it would be a severely impoverished one.

Tip: Metaphors resemble flowers. Too many overwhelm. Too few deprive the world of color, texture, fragrance, and the inspiration for fantasy, dream, and collective memory.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Metaphors: Apt or Inept? Part II

People often enjoy lists of ten. Certain writers love commandments about what to do and not. So colleague Angela Rydell and I came up with:

The Ten Commandments of Metaphor

1. Thou shalt honor the similarity between the two things compared.

“Metaphor creates a meaning greater than the sum of its parts, because the parts interact.”  — Richard Sennett

2. Thou shalt not make wrongful use of clichés. 

“From metaphor we can best get hold of something fresh.” — Aristotle

3. Thou shalt not mix metaphors.

Careful what you include. One bad egg can spoil the whole pot of chili.

4. Thou shalt not superfluously ornament thy language with metaphors. 

 “To be successful… metaphor must be functional rather than decorative.” Stephen Dobyns

5. Thou shalt not state the obvious.

Show, don’t tell.

6. Thou shalt remember meaning and keep it holy.

“A good metaphor fits so neatly that it fuses to and illuminates the meaning.” — Janet Burroway

7. Thou shalt not covet abstract language.

“No ideas but in things.”  — William Carlos Williams

8. Thou shalt dig deeper than obvious comparisons. 

“Metaphor says more in an instant than pages of explication can.” — Michelle Boisseau

9. Thou shalt not reveal how hard thou worked at writing. 

“The language must be careful and must appear effortless.  It must not sweat.  It must suggest and be provocative at the same time.” — Toni Morrison

10. Thou shalt honor precision. 

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug.” — Mark Twain

Tip: Work hard at your metaphors. So your readers don’t have to.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Metaphors: Apt or Inept? Part I

Tony Hoagland says that

the only adequate way to describe [a metaphor] is by another metaphor.  It is a mystery hand going into a black mystery box.  The head says, “Fetch me a metaphor, hand,” and the hand disappears under a cloth.  A moment later, the hand reappears, metaphor in its extended palm.... A metaphor... is a fetching motion of the imagination.

That sounds great! But what does it mean? A bit less poetically, John Frederick Nims explains:

“Metaphor” is from the Greek word for transfer. In modern Greece, one can see delivery trucks with the word “METAФOPA” painted on their sides, they are metaphors on wheels, as it were, transferring goods from one place to another.  When we use metaphor, we transfer to one thing the identity of something else that we associate with it, as when we say that the heart of a cruel man is a stone or that a grumpy man is a bear.

Robert Frost called metaphor “saying one thing in terms of another.” More formally, the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines metaphor as ”a…figurative expression, in which a word or phrase is shifted from its normal uses to a context where it evokes new meanings.”

Is this relevant to novelists? Orson Scott Card believes that “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” A good plot makes vicarious experience concrete for the reader—functioning as a metaphor for the theme. Metaphors add layers: the Mississippi as the road of life; a white whale as arrogance; a mockingbird as an innocent who only wants to sing.

Harper Lee’s getting lots of attention these days. Why? Because the mockingbird is a perfect metaphor for destroying innocence, whether child, outcast, or defendant. The metaphor she chose is permanently imprinted on our collective memory:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  -- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

But what if she said “It’s a sin to kill a goat. After all, they just eat. Where’s the harm in that?” Would that substitution insure our continuing reverence for the name “Harper Lee”? Make us eager to hunt down anything she ever did or would write? To put it another way, “Would anyone still stalk the diamonds she penned?” Yeech.

Tip: A bad or mixed metaphor is much worse than no metaphor at all.

For what reason? If metaphors are so great, so haunting, why not just use them any way you want, as often as you want? Next time, the ten commandments of metaphor will offer ten reasons why.