Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sports Cars, Magickal Whatsises and Cetera

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Cormac McCarthy's novella The Road bears striking similarities to Ernest Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea? Both of them are basically the myth of Sisyphus, though McCarthy tacked on something like a happy ending (to which I cry foul and cowardice, by the way but whatevers).

My point, possibly, is that theme is eternal, or at least some themes are. How many takes on "Romeo and Juliet" (itself a retread of much older material) or the theme people will destroy themselves and their whole world for love have there been? How many more are to come? The theme never dies.

Over on my blog yesterday I was musing about the purposes behind the actions of characters, the hidden motivations. Lately I've been trying to look more deeply into story structure, to see what forces lie far beneath the surface. I have an image of a narrative--what you'd call a novel--as something like the surface of the earth, but it's just a skin stretched over a more primal, possibly molten and unstable core. I want to look at the core, at the center of the earth.

I'm starting small, or trying to, by looking at my characters this way. As I told Anne Gallagher on my blog, a protagonist has to want something, but that something isn't necessarily the swag they're diving for in the story. That swag likely represents something deeper, something never seen by anyone and possibly something within the protagonist that the protagonist never thinks about, at least not directly.

This is not necessarily support for the "psychological novel" where the character's actions in present day are to be explained by some event from their past (some trauma they haven't come to grips with or whatever), but I do think that stories--great stories--tend to be "about" people who are acting to defend their basic humanity in one way or another. Possibly all great stories are in the end the myth of Sisyphus, but in some of the stories the stone finally remains at the top of the hill and Sisyphus builds a house in its shade.

Where am I going with all of this? I don't know. I am rambling on a Tuesday morning. I don't necessarily belief that "there are only X many plots" or that every well-formed story is a Campbellian Transformative Journey of the Hero. What I do believe, at least this week, is that surface elements are the least important part of a story. To my fellow writers I suggest that when you're looking at your character and asking her what she wants, don't listen to her first answer. If she says "a sports car," ask her "why." Keep asking. Don't listen to her facile lies. It might also be instructive to ask yourself, dear writer, why you think your character wants a sports car. What is it about you that makes you think a sports car/money/the magickal whatsis is desirable? Why? No, really. Why? Be creative. Don't accept any answer you've read in another book or seen on TV.


  1. Oddly enough--or, really, not so oddly--on my ride to work today, as I was reading Chaim Potok's The Chosen, I ended up thinking about what it is I am always searching for when I write a story. At the time I answered that it was this idea of wanting to see "reality" but as a result of a truly dramatic incident, as if the fiction was all to make reality more extreme. Is that why I write fiction?

    And I came about this because the protagonist of Cyberlama is still quite a mystery to me. I don't yet know, really, what she wants. Freedom is part of it, but I've somehow put her in this interesting middle grown where she kind of wants social interaction and kind of doesn't at the same time. And I start to think about why she is this way, and my first impulse is to blame her parents--which is something I always tend to do--so I'm trying to figure out another way to handle this. Cyberlama!

  2. My characters are always asking "who am I?" and "am I doing the right thing?" My stories are all about identity and meaningful work and seeking love and security. My work-in-progress is turning into a study in self doubt and religious doubt (which might be a form of self doubt). Oddly enough, parents figure in the equation in my book. It occurs to me that in each of my books, a parental figure gets killed in a violent manner. Issues?

  3. I didn't get that at all from The Road. I saw it first and foremost as a love story (although not a romantic one, because that would have been way creepier than the cannibals that are already in the story).

    The ending didn't bother me. I would have thought it incomplete had it ended sooner (e.g. before the Boy meets the Guy with the Gun). In the context of a love story about his son, ending with a feeling of hope for the Boy after the Man's death is sensible (McCarthy's son was 8 when the book was written, and McCarthy admitted to Oprah that the book is just a story about the man and the boy on the road, he did not intend for a greater underlying theme).

    Of course, that would be a sucky ending for a Greek tragedy, I'm with you there.

    The last bit of advice in the post is excellent. I hope many take it to heart.

  4. 'Everything has a psychology.' That's my writing mantra. I love getting into the psychology of my characters. I did a psychology degree and it didn't occur to me until years later that I did it so I could analyse my characters better. People talk about character development and depth of character as if it can be achieved by adding lots of individual 'quirks' (he only eats cold foods, she sucks her thumb in her sleep, blah blah blah) but the depth in any person, real or fictional, is just their psychology, and you have to know the psychology of your characters inside out. They don't have to be aware of it, but you do.
    'Why?' is always a good question. You still suck your thumb? Why?

  5. I always thought "The Old Man and the Sea" used the Christ story as a framing device. You know, wounds in the hands, wound in the side, three days at sea, all that.

  6. Loren, that's interesting! And there's the whole fisherman aspect as well. I'll have to think about that.

    Overdue: Psychology, yes! Psychological novel, no! I will say that I think it's also a good idea to not fully understand your character. They should have mysteries even to the writer, because I don't believe anyone can fully know anyone else, and if you know everything there is about a character, what you've done is created a limited character. Leave a little mystery. Agreed about quirks as lazy shortcuts to characterization.

    Rick: I know how you feel about The Road, and I figured you'd respond (and I'm glad you did). For me, though, the emotion of the story is just sentimentality. I agree it's a love story from McCarthy to his real-life son, written by an old man who won't survive to see his son as an adult, but that aspect of it has always struck me as treacly. I also don't like the Guy with the Gun, who shows up like a fairy godmother just when the boy is bereft. That's not a useful fantasy to plant in your son's head, is it?

    I love the prose in that book, but I want to give Cormac a good shake over it as well.

  7. I find it really interesting that posts like these get so few comments, honestly. Are our readers reading these things? Have we gone too philosophical and deep and boring-sounding? Because I find this absolutely fascinating. I asked myself a lot of these questions about character motivation and story when I was writing Monarch. I also read String Bridge by Jessica Bell a few months ago, and her command of characters and their motivations was so brilliantly golden that I spent a week being jealous of her ability. She dug deep into those characters into things I'm not sure she even understood, and it left that sense of "molten" in her story that is so rich.

    Davin, I'm like that - blaming stuff on parents all the time. It seems natural and a easy fix. My stories fixate so much on relationships that going down the line of possible relationships gets old after awhile. Then I realize I'm not being clever enough. :)

    Scott, I agree about the end of The Road. I think I would have HATED that book when I first finished it if it had ended tragically like I'd really like it too. I would have hated it, but loved it now. Instead I was satisfied at the moment and get upset about it now. Hah. Oh well. Not my story. I'll just have to write some more tragedies to fill the void or something. :)

    Now I'm rambling. Look at me go!

  8. Honestly, I really like the more philosophical posts. They're fun to mull over.

    Regarding The Road, there's a really interesting interview with Cormac McCarthy in The Wall Street Journal. (If the site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend.) I thought that the ending of the novel with its emphasis on the imago dei ("carrying the fire") was fascinating. McCarthy seems to consider himself a lapsed Catholic, but a lot of that mindset still seems pretty close to the surface of his writing.

  9. Loren, I read that interview when it first came out, but I just read it again. McCarthy says, "good guys is what "The Road" is about. That's the subject at hand." I'm prepared to believe him. He also says in the interview, "being good is more important than being smart," so maybe "being good" regardless of circumstances is one of the themes of the book. I still think the ending is a cheat, though.

    Michelle, yeah! Exactly! I'd have felt bad if the story ended in truly tragic fasion, but I'd like the book better now if McCarthy had gone in that direction. I've never thought of it like that before.

  10. Michelle, I think people don't know how to respond to posts this open-ended, maybe. When I write something like this, I'm hoping to open a broad discussion. I'm hoping people will say stuff like, "No, you don't need to know anything about your characters" and defend that point, or tell what questions they ask about their characters/themselves when writing, or suggest possibly that I've got the theme of "Romeo and Juliet" wrong. Or something.

    Maybe I just want to talk about the idea that a story is an exterior, and that there is an immense and mostly-unknown interior that we attempt to describe by writing stories, and it would be maybe interesting to think aloud about what's in that interior. Maybe, though, nobody else is interested in this idea. No loss, though. It's just a blog post, right? But it got Loren to point out the Christian images in "The Old Man and the Sea," which I'd never noticed before. So well done, me!

  11. Scott, I think you're right. When I get into posts like this, it's like, what do I say to this? I just comment here because I like to have conversations with you and we never seem to get around to actually Skyping to do that, so I'll settle for comments. :)

    I'm with Loren on the Christian images in The Old Man and the Sea, but only because I had some professors who were convinced that was the only way to see the story. I really appreciate you pointing out another way to look at it. I like that I'm finally coming out of the "symbols only mean one thing" type of thinking from college.

  12. Michelle, some day we'll actually talk again in real time! Promise! But I warn you that I'm better on the page than in person; I don't think as well. I'm really not as smart when I talk as when I write. But still, Skype will happen again.

    I used to think that symbols in stories had set meanings. And then I started to use symbolism in my own writing and learned better. And then I started having readers who saw random choices I'd made as symbols (you know, the old saw about how the professor says the curtains in a scene are blue to illustrate the character's sadness or whatever, but the writer made the curtains blue because she was in a hurry with the scene and her own curtains are blue so there you go: blue curtains).

  13. Scott, now that I'm kind of getting back to my normal state, it will definitely be easier to try and get together on Skype and have a real conversation. You are not better on the page that in person. You are fantastic either way! :)

    Symbols in writing are the best when they mean multiple things. I try very hard to make my book titles work on about 5 different levels. Then I write a book from there and voila! 5 different levels in the book, too. It's fun.

  14. Wow, I sure make writing sound easy. It's so not that way.

  15. Scott- That point about the curtains is priceless.


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