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Character Development

January 21, 2009

So I’m cheating – last time I swore I’d talk about AI, but not yet.  I have so much reading to do, and I keep putting it off.  When I get home from work I just want to turn on the Australian Open, put my nose in a book (Decline and Fall of the British Empire right now, more hilarious in more places than you would expect with that title), and veg out.  I’m also trying to lose weight, which means not being in the apartment in the evenings – going to movies and generally “doin’ stuff” that keeps me from finding the answers to life’s problems in the fridge (where I always seem to find them, eventually).  And of course I’m avoiding hard work.  If only I didn’t have a job on top of all the other things I have to do!  Where is my genius grant?

So instead I’ll start with some of the big questions a novelist faces at the beginning of a book.  I’d decided I wanted to write about lonely people, damaged people who had a hard time forming new relationships, and how it would affect someone like that to have an opportunity to develop a relationship “risk-free,” so to speak.  So right there, some of your big ideas are chosen, and you’re ready (forced) to consider the nuts and bolts of them. 

Loneliness becomes a theme – if I were a literary sort, MFA in hand and a clutch of short stories en route at all times to the inboxes of small magazines, I’d label it “the inability to connect,” which is precisely the sort of high conceptual, academic distancing from an emotional problem in fiction that I loathe.  It’s loneliness, it’s pain.  It hurts to live with, and, if you really know anything about it, it hurts to write about it, because writing about it is reliving it.  It’s all well and good to write yet another slim volume about a marriage under the microscope if you keep that literary-theoretical distance from your characters, a discreet huff off the anhedonia bottle before you sit down to write every day.  But my goal isn’t distance. 

What is the goal then?  Well, one obviously is to process – fiction as therapy, though that’s a slippery slope as I discuss below re: putting too much of yourself in a character.  Another is to solve an interesting intellectual problem, the problem of creating a richer, fuller character than I’ve ever done before.  Another is to create an AI “from scratch” that feels as real as any other character, and moreover looks like what I think AI will look like not so long from now.  And probably most importantly, to tell one hell of a good story.  There’s no “luminous prose” in the world that can substitute for a great story (if you have time, Vikram Chandra’s massive Sacred Games is awesome entertainment, a Bombay full of gangsters and cops and hookers and movie stars, the fastest 900 pages you will ever read).  And another, the point of putting this all online, is to solve my own loneliness problem – to take the lonely process of writing a novel about loneliness and share it with the world, to get support and encouragement and feedback, to make friends and connections and, if successful, end the project as well and as happily for myself as I plan it to end for Caroline.

Tolstoy’s maxim is that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  I think I know what he might have been thinking as he started Anna Karenina: I know who she’s going to be, who she is, the question is, now how do I draw her life so that people believe me when I tell them how she got this way?  So the question becomes, how to explain Caroline’s loneliness?  She’s not stupid, she thinks she’s fatter than she is, people like her when they get to know her.  What has happened to her, to make her so withdrawn, why is it so hard once you get in that place to get out? 

And then it becomes a question of drawing out that explanation in a satisfactorily dramatic way.  Now that’s an art form.  I just saw “Gran Torino,” and I was amazed by the writing.  Eastwood’s character develops, changes, in perfect synchronicity with the way his character unfolds, the events in his life from his relationship with his dead wife and distant kids to his Korean war experiences exposed as needed to explain him, draw you into him, and justify what’s coming next.  Crappy novels say, “Caroline was lonely.  So much bad stuff had happened to her.  She couldn’t stand to think of those awful memories.”  But that won’t do.  You need to like her, as we like Eastwood (of course he has an advantage now as an actor in that everybody loves Eastwood already), before you know too much about her.  And then, as you learn her history, you need to forgive her, and pity her, and love her more.  That’s fucking hard.  One of my weaknesses as a novelist is hurrying – I can’t stand not to cut to the chase.  A leisurely unpacking of character has just been beyond me till now.  So there’s an issue I have to deal with.

Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”  Yeah, Caroline is me, or at least a version of me.  Another of my consistent weaknesses as a novelist has been putting myself at the center of the action.  After all, with a main character who already exists fully formed, the story gets much easier to write!  I’ve fallen prey to the tenor of the times, the easy idea ever since Bright Lights, Big City that “you” are the subject of truly interesting character study fiction.  On one level it’s lazy, admittedly – Madame Bovary isn’t really Flaubert, transcribed; he imagined her out of whole cloth.  Yet on another, it’s necessary – who do we know, really, other than ourselves?  The first priority of fiction is to have characters who feel real. If they don’t, the story fails.

So I made Caroline/”me” a woman this time for a couple reasons.  One, to give myself distance from “myself” by changing the character’s gender, which in and of itself changes the game – she has a whole different set of social issues than I do; she doesn’t have to spend her days dealing w/AIDS or Rick Warren (please be civil while I am burning you at the stake, thank you for your cooperation – sorry, non sequitur but had to get it out) or all that.  Two, of course, having an ardent desire to see something published that does not end up in the gay fiction ghetto at B&N, and wanting someday to make a living without a job, making a heterosexual woman the main character is critical for a successful novel of this kind, since the majority of the few remaining book buyers are women. So the two faces of O – cynical careerist, and thoughtful artist. 

Now the problem is (having spent so long in offices, I may write a non sequitur post some day about my complete and total loathing of the word “challenge”) creating her back story, giving her the life that’s led her here, the experiences that have made her gun shy – and then again it becomes a story of how much of my own life do I stuff her with, how much of what I know do I use to make her believable?  That’s a problem I haven’t solved yet.

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