Over at the blog of the ever-helpful Patricia Wrede, I've been involved in a small discussion of the pleasures and pitfalls of first-person narration. In the course of this, I had a bit of an epiphany about the problem with one of my best-loved and longest-blocked stories. The insight seems so general that I hasten here to share and develop it.
In first-person narration, the author speaks with the character's voice. This adds a whole new level of fiction - the tale is being implicitly told in the world in which it takes place; and the teller is not in their common character as J Random Scrivener, but is playing Perry Protagonist for the duration. So there are two necessarily two stories involved:
1) The main picture: "Perry Protagonist Meets the Hambridge Horror"; and also
2) The frame story: "Perry Protagonist Tells About the Time He Met the Hambridge Horror".
By default, the frame story is assumed to be uninteresting, and is transparent. The author can play games with it - sometimes to excellent effect - but they don't have to. In cases where the frame story is not expected to be of interest to the reader, the author too can pretty much forget about it.
But what happens if you are one of those authors, like me, whose characters must take on a life of their own or else shamble through the story as dull decaying zombies? This is when you may be forced to remember.
A common problem for me is that a character "won't do what I want them to" at a crucial moment. Let's unpack that slightly hackneyed expression. This means that the character (as I really understand and have drawn them) doesn't react to their situation as the plot demands they do (in order for the things I want to happen).
Then I can manipulate them like a puppet, and say they do it anyway. That bears the great risk of killing them, of turning them into a mere mechanism propelled by plotwork. I won't be able to get into their head after that. Or I can accept the thing they want to do instead, and let the plot go hang. Or I can row back, and change the external circumstances - by having the proverbial stranger with the gun crash into the room, or by deciding that their girlfriend really prefers chocolate to flowers, or whatever - in a way which might really make them want to do what I wanted them to in the first place.
Turning them into a plot zombie is abominable; letting them dictate the plot is risky though potentially rewarding; and if the plot point is really that important, then finding a way it could actually happen via that character is probably the best way to go. All clear enough. But what if you're perfectly okay with the way Perry Protagonist met the Hambridge Horror, yet have serious problems with the way he ends up telling it?
This happened to me at least once. The book my viewpoint character was writing would have flown from his world's shelves about ten times faster than Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama, now does in ours. People have non-literary reasons to read it, even if they think he's the villain. In our own world, my character's opus would have shifted at pretty much the exact same rate as Reminiscences from my Youth, by A Fantasy Hero, with Some Sidelights on the Coming Promise of Water-Power. He's a likeable raconteur, but he doesn't even think like a novelist.
The kind of guy he is - among other things, a heroically and inventively stubborn one - is the whole point of the book. If I'd turned him into my narrative zombie to create the novel I needed, it would have smashed his character, and thus the central reason for either writing or reading the result. If I'd let him go his merry way, I'd also have ended up with nothing I could use. It was a stumper!
And then I got into that conversation on Pat's site, and it occurred to me that there was a frame story. I'd been using a very transparent one: he was writing his memoirs from semi-retirement, because there were a lot of dumb songs floating around about what he was supposed to have done, and he wanted to set the record straight.
I couldn't change what he'd do about that. What if I changed the frame story? Why would a man like him need to write something that was a Darn Good Novel: compact, revealing, funny, persuasive, and above all romantically compelling?
I only had to ask the question to answer it. I know in my head a lot about what happens after the 'end of his story'. If he writes the novel I want... then it has to be written something less than ten years later, just after A dies and B does that thing, and oh my goodness that's why he and his partner end up doing that other!
Suddenly my frame story went as tight as a wound spring. How he manages something that good is easy: he's a tremendously quick learner and hard worker; he's already a wordsmith in his way; and his best friend by then is for all practical purposes Leona Tolstoy. No, he can do the job with-a-little-bit-of-help, if he has reason.
And now maybe I can do my job on it too, after such a long hiatus. When Lindowe Linn and Three Katherines are done, to be sure; when I have a moment's pause to try it in. But at last I think I know how to tackle it.
So that's the lesson I drew. Character won't follow plot - change their external in-story circumstances so that they want to. Character won't tell it right - change their external circumstances in the frame-story, ditto.
I don't know how well or how often this will suit other writers' processes besides my own. But it does seem like a handy trick to remember.
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