Posts Tagged ‘human action’
If plot is the skeleton upon which the meat of your story hangs, then characters are surely the heart and soul.
Characterization is the art of presenting the people who populate your story.
Characterization is, in essence, nothing more — or less — than the depiction of motive (a word, incidentally, that comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move or act”).
Thus it is primarily through actions and speech that a character’s traits are disclosed — which is why the act of compendiating in narrative passages a character’s thoughts and feelings do not alone develop character (though these passages do help, and telling, as opposed to merely showing, does have a legitimate place in storytelling).
The following, for example, illustrate the way in which even short passages of dialogue effectively develop a character:
“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”
(Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
Eddie: “All right, I’m giving three-to-one odds I’ll have this fag licking my balls inside of three minutes.”
(Charles Bukowski, Barfly)
Algernon: Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing at that?
Lane: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
Algernon: (Languidly.) I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
(Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act I, Scene I)
Just as in real life humans are evaluated by what we say and do, so in literature characters are also defined by what they say and do.
But what, finally, defines a character’s words and deeds?
What, for that matter, defines our words and deeds?
Only when we understand why a person does what she does do we begin to understand that person. And we understand someone well only when we understand the motives behind her actions.
“Human action is purposeful behavior,” said Ludwig von Mises, “and humans think not only for the sake of thinking but also in order to act.”
Yes: it is ultimately thought (or non-thought) that defines deeds, and thoughts, as we recently discussed, are shaped by words.
Literature is the artform of language. Literature is the artform of thought.
Character, both real and fictional, is determined by how thoroughly the author examines the thoughts that make the character act in the way she acts — and we are each the author of our own soul. The deeper the author delves into motive, the deeper we understand the character, and the more enriched our understanding of the human heart.
Or perhaps you have.
Yet the following list, laid out in no particular order (with the exception of Number 1), is relatively obscure:
10. Light Years
Published in 1995, this is James Salter’s fourth novel — a novel as real, as poetic, and as heartbreakingly beautiful as anything I’ve ever read.
By Fydor Dostoevsky. Once translated as The Possessed and often regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s four great masterpieces, the novel Demons (which contains my favorite character of all-time) nonetheless remains poorly known. Perhaps it’s the first 100 pages, which Dostoevsky later admitted were “a mistake” and not the proper way to start his mind-spinning story, which is an absolute masterpiece of plot-and-theme integration.
Tom Drury’s fourth novel, published in 2006, is intelligent, endearing, funny — though perhaps a little too farcical — and contains an exceptionally likable hero named Pierre Hunter.
The final novel by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who, in 2004, died somewhat mysteriously at the young age of fifty. 2666 is a strange and sprawling novel — not quite one thousand pages — which depicts, among many other things, the unsolved murders of over 300 young, poverty-stricken, uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez. The story is poorly paced, but the novel is symmetrical and stylistically stunning.
6. Mao II
Written by the prolific and inconsistent New York City writer Don DeLillo, Mao II is one of his very few that held me to the end, with its excellent and unorthodox prose and its memorable female protagonist — the photographer Britta — and, most of all, his utterly real J.D. Salingeresque hero Bill.
Nick Tosches, who writes for Vanity Fair magazine, got poor reviews for this book, and in many ways you can understand why. It is an undeniably flawed novel (his third), but if you’re at all interested in the actual craft of writing, this book will sustain you with the sheer power of Tosches’s writing style and the fascinating originality of his story. Johnny Depp recently bought the rights to this book and is tentatively planning to make it into a movie.
Many regard Truman Capote as America’s finest stylist, and I think there’s a good reason why. This book, which was published posthumously in 1986 in England and in 1987 in the United States (though chapters of it first appeared in Esquire magazine), represents Capote at his best. Because of it’s subject-matter, it created a firestorm of negative controversy, from which he never recovered. Admittedly, the plot, such as it is, is wobbly, but the prose positively coruscates.
3. Outer Dark
You’ve doubtless heard of the author — Cormac McCarthy — but you might not be familiar with his second novel, which was published in 1965, when Cormac was thirty-three-years-old. There’s something biblical and apocalyptic in this book — a raw and, at times, astoundingly poetic read. The title itself appears three times in the Bible, all three of which from the book of Matthew:
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12).
Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13).
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30).
That’s a lot of teeth-gnashing, I think you would agree.
But Outer Dark will not leave you gnashing your teeth, though it just might leave you weeping.
Nicholas Christopher is one of the best least-known novelists and poets alive today — a true writer’s writer. His novel Trip to the Stars was first published in 2001, and here’s how it’s appositely described on his website:
At a Manhattan planetarium in 1965, a ten-year-old boy called Loren is kidnapped from his young adoptive aunt, Alma. The event profoundly changes the rest of their lives. Told through their alternating voices, A Trip to the Stars charts the paths of Loren and Alma over the next fifteen years, as they search for each other and in the process, discover themselves.
When he is whisked away by strangers, Loren at first believes he has been mistaken for another child. But his abductor turns out to a blood relative–his great-uncle Junius Samax, a wealthy reformed gambler. To his even greater surprise, Loren learns his “real name” is Enzo.
Growing up in a lavish converted Las Vegas hotel, Loren is surrounded by a priceless collection of art and antiques, and a host of eccentric guests–including experts on Atlantis, Zuni occultism, vampires, and other mysteries of the universe. Slowly, he pieces together the truth about his mother, and the complicated history that led to his adoption shortly before her death. He also battles a malicious woman, with hidden ties to both his birth parents. Although he still thinks about his aunt far away, Enzo is lulled by the belief that she knows he is safe.
But in New York, Alma is devastated by Loren’s disappearance. After months of frantic, fruitless searching, she stops and starts striving to escape the past. Changing her name to Mala– the word for “bad” in Latin, Spanish, and Italian–she gets a car and drives as far as New Orleans. After a stint working for an arachnologist, she volunteers for duty in Vietnam–a war she opposes. Trained as an X-ray technician and assigned to the Navy Nurse Corps, she keeps to herself and mourns for Loren. On Christmas day, the unexpected happens. Mala meets Geza Cassiel–a striking Air Force captain with the strange outline of a key in his stomach. Immediately, they are drawn to one another. Yet just as Mala opens her heart, Geza too vanishes. Devastated again, Mala begins a restless ten-year journey, moving from island to island around the globe, seeking for some way to overcome her losses.
Seamlessly fusing fantasy, scholarship, and suspense, A Trip to the Stars follows Enzo and Mala across a vast landscape–with stops in the Mojave Desert, Greece, North Africa, the South Pacific, and Hawaii–and through harrowing and electrifying events. At every step, Christopher tantalizes with dark secrets, breathtaking coincidences, psychic revelations, celestial influences, and the converging forces of fate and chance.
Christopher builds a story of tremendous scope as he traces the intricate latticework of Mala and Loren’s lives. Each remains separate from the other, but both are tied in ways they cannot imagine — until the final, miraculous chapter of this extraordinary novel comes to an end.
Toilers of the Sea is one of my all-time favorite novels, and Victor Hugo is one of my all-time favorite novelists. This book is a paean to human ingenuity, human strength and self-discipline. At the same time, this book is an absolute condemnation of superstition.
Toilers of the Sea was first published in 1866, when Victor Hugo was sixty-four-years-old, and I promise you one thing: you’ll never forget Gilliat, surely one of the greatest characters in all of world literature.
Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions, said Ludwig von Mises.
And so is plot.
But unlike life, plot is selective — and what that means, among other things, is that the author is the selector.
The author chooses the actions his characters undertake.
This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways that fiction differs from journalism, and it’s why “the pressure to record” is not — contrary to what the Naturalist School of Art would have you believe — the primary function of art.
Art creates. Journalism records.
In life, there are a great many actions which are mundane and of no major consequence — whether it’s walking around the block, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or yawning.
Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon. Art isolates and clarifies those issues, condensing into one single unit what in life might be spread out over a period of years, or even decades.
That, in a nutshell, is the purpose and power of art.
A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action. If, therefore, your story isn’t presented by means of physical action, it isn’t a novel. It may be a journal, it may be an epistle, it may be a memoir, it may be a diary, and it may be many other interesting things as well. But it is not a novel.
It’s important to note here that physical action doesn’t necessarily just mean fist-fights, car chases, and sex-scenes.
Physical action means that humans are engaged in purposeful action — which is to say, your characters are engaged in the pursuit of values.
Whether you’re writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, or a literary novel, you must appeal to something real in the body of human experience.
Life, said Nietszche, is a process of valuing. “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and from the perspective of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).
In my experience, the most talented editors are able to flesh out those parts of the story that have always troubled the writer even when the writer has never quite been able to put her finger on exactly what is troubling her. Virtually every manuscript I’ve ever written or worked upon has had issues with pacing. The reason for this, I’ve come to believe, is that writing a book of any length requires, perforce, a certain myopia. And yet sustaining a narrative pace for hundreds or even ONE hundred pages requires the exact opposite of myopia: it requires a kind of far-sightedness. Very often, writers are simply too caught up in the details of their story to see how the overall pace flows.
That, I now think, is the greatest value of an editor: to show where the story grinds to a standstill.
Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced book.
It is, at times, extraordinarily well written from a stylistic perspective, and Moby Dick remains erudite and interesting on a great many levels, but the fact is, Moby Dick is not even really a novel. It’s a treatise: it’s a treatise on truth, it’s a treatise on whales, it’s a treatise on America, it’s a treatise on God, and it’s a treatise on many other things as well. But it’s not a novel.
Think of pacing as a journey; and will your readers go along? Quoting editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner:
The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags. I like to imagine the narrative as a trip. Just as the ride feels shorter on the way home, a phenomenon all school-age children remark on, even though it is exactly the same number of miles as the trip away, the reader expects that time will pass more rapidly as the book heads toward the finish. Once we know the way, the scenery rolls by like so much wallpaper. Your editor should help you see when the writing has turned into wallpaper (Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees).