So. I’ve gone through and made a list of all the things from all the drafts of the chapters I’ve written (I use the term ‘draft’ loosely, but there was a time when I most definitely did draft my chapters, which is why it took me around 2 months to finish one), and found that so many problems with the manuscript were solved before I even knew they were problems, and that so many ideas I’ve had since finishing and re-reading the manuscript were fleshed-out before I even thought of taking the story in that direction. It’s pretty dope.
Now all that’s left to do is really seriously think about what new elements I want to introduce into it that haven’t already been covered by these proto-chapters. Actually, not even that; I’ve gotten really caught up in finding out what solutions I’ve already provided to myself, and now I feel slightly derailed. Not in a bad way, but still derailed, and I had a purpose in sticking to the tracks that has yet to be fulfilled, so I’m going to get back to my ‘what I want’ list now that this splurge has ended. Because after that, and one more run-through of beta feedback, I’ll be all set to start not just planning but actually writing draft 2. And I really want to get back to writing this story.
Yesterday I was reading articles about child soldiers. Then today I was reading a forum thread about people recognising and coming to terms with their sexual orientation. Needless to say, both were thought-provoking exercises, and it got me to thinking about my characters’ biographies, and how I tend to view my characters, and just people in general, what ‘angle’ I tend to approach them from in terms of what makes people and characters the way they are. I used to approach from the ground-up, something I took from my D&D character-sheet-making days, and start with traits in order to find out what kind of character I was going to end up creating, which would always end up frustrating me when it seemed that the character I’d intended on creating didn’t seem viable given what I was able to come up with for their backstory. Now I do it more or less the same way as I draft; I just kind of throw things out there, see what interests me and then build on that.
I still get frustrated when I have a character that I really like as they currently are, and then upon asking myself the hard question of how they got to that stage, coming up short. I wonder if this is the point where it’s quite crucial to realise that characters and people are not the same thing; and more importantly, that just because I can’t put it together doesn’t mean that it couldn’t make sense. But that second one is endlessly frustrating, and quite upsetting, because it’s saying that somebody could get it right – just not me.
I haven’t seriously gotten upset about that sort of thing for quite some time, but nevertheless, there’s an instance of it right now that I’m trying to deal with and it’s getting ever-closer to that point. It is true that with fiction comes creative license, and the thing about fictional characters is that their primary purpose is to tell a story and be believable within that story, not to be realistic to the point of being indistinguishable from actual human beings. Or that’s what I’m trying to tell myself at least.
But then there’s the part of me that wants to create real human beings, fully-formed and totally fleshed-out in all of their intriguing complexities and mundane definitions. Which is a little beyond my grasp, or the grasp of any one person, but that doesn’t stop it from sometimes upsetting me to the point of distraction, and even of giving up altogether.
It is this indefatigable perfectionism that so often plagues my writing process, the inability to Just Do It, and it always happens when I’ve lost momentum. It’s probably why I haven’t felt it so much lately, like in the past year or so, because I’ve just been keeping everything moving so quickly, or comparative to my usual pace anyway. And again, I really like the effect that speed has on my work. It seems like such a simple concept, to just do everything faster, but the results go way beyond simply getting things done sooner than I otherwise might. It cuts out all that time spent fretting and procrastinating over these kinds of nit-picky worries and second-guesses; they take up a lot of time, and in that time I can write one or two 8-page chapters (the norm for Tallulah, and they’re A4 pages), or so I estimate.
It’s even helping with this character-believability issue, because I’m starting to see that it is my problem with the characters – I don’t know if anybody else will even care. I often feel like I owe people a certain amount of perfectionism, like I’m obliged to live up to Other People’s expectations of me. Not that I know what those expectations might even be in the first place, so really they’re all just my own expectations, but knowing that isn’t the same as believing it. Again, the gospel of speed is helping me to just not really care one way or another about this kind of stuff, and in the end if nobody else cares then that’s fine. But I do feel that I have to care, to the extent where I have to at least make sure that my characters feel consistent, if not realistic. That’s something for me. I have standards, and I like my standards, and I’m getting better at not being so hung-up over things like that, but at the same time, if I’m going to try and do something that I actually care about doing, I’m going to try and do it as well as I can.
It’s not just writing for which I end up crippling myself with spasms of perfectionism; it’s been the running theme of my life. And that’s part of why Tallulah means so much to me; I’ve ended up challenging and disproving a whole host of really unhealthy beliefs I’ve been holding for years.
And one of those is trying to ‘get things right’. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m more interested in doing things because I like doing them, and in the way that I like doing them, rather than trying to work out how Other People – a concept I rarely think about as critically as I could – want me to do it. And I think the truth is that nobody actually gives a damn, and I’m simply a little slow in realising it.
And even if they do, so what?
But okay. Perfectionism and character believability. Let’s run with this for a bit.
The issue of writing Good Characters is something that Writing is particularly concerned with; there’s the idea of Mary Sue characters (I’m thinking of pushing for the male equivalent to be a ‘James Bond’, though I doubt it’ll catch on), of Token characters, of sexist characters and racist characters and characters with no agency and just plan old boring characters – there’s a lot of ways to get characters wrong, it seems. And while I don’t like bandying about words like Right and Wrong when it comes to creative expression, there are definitely characters that I dislike, intensely, along all of these lines. And at the core of it all, ultimately, is the issue of believability – and of satisfying consequences.
The Magicians is a good example of this. Quentin is somewhat sexist, very selfish, sometimes cruel and always petulant. He is a pathetic, spineless, self-indulgent manchild, and I love him for it, because that’s the point. He’s designed this way to make a point; it’s intentional, and it plays into how the story is told and what it’s about – the consequences of being all of those things. It’s not quite as harsh on him as I’d like, but it comes pretty close, and I eat up anything sufficiently cynical, so long as it’s also insightful, which this book definitely is. And he’s also self-aware without it ever getting to the point where the story excuses him for any of the horrible things he’s done. It has consequences, and that is what makes it compelling, because it’s believable.
The Lovely Bones is an example of believable characters without satisfying consequences. The mother character … I just despise her. Not just her; the father I also despise for being so spineless as to take her back after what she did, but most of all I hate how the story does nothing to hold her accountable for it, and in fact basically treats her as the misunderstood good guy of the situation. The thing is that the situation presented in the story and how events play out does actually feel believable, but it’s presented in this triumphant, glorified light that feels utterly unsatisfying, because there’s no justice to accompany the catharsis we as readers are supposed to feel at the outcome. She was spineless, and her consequence is one instance of her son, who doesn’t even remember her because she left when he was so young, swearing at her. That’s it. After that apparently the slate is wiped clean and she’s welcomed back with open arms; and it feels believable, but not satisfying, because I was waiting for justice to happen, and it didn’t. (It’s not the only injustice in the story that is glossed over, not by any means, but it is the one that annoyed me the most.)
The handling of that character was one of the primary motivations for me wanting to write Tallulah to begin with; thankfully it’s evolved slightly from simply being an exercise in indulging my outrage into something of its own, but nevertheless, that example of how a character can be written, and be supported by the story, is one that I desperately hope never to replicate.
For me, I think it’s about consistency, not just in how a character behaves but in how the story presents certain values, particularly moral values. I think it’s fine to explore the very complicated situation of dealing with having your partner cheat on you, and the fact that so many couples who suffer an affair do actually stay together, and that however just it might be, righteous outrage is not what people always feel in response to being so wronged. But that’s the characters. The story is the framework within which those characters exist, and it’s a moral framework as much as anything else – because it’s a fiction, every single value expressed, every action sanctioned by the narrative, carries weight. Therefore, it not only has to be internally consistent for the purposes of the story, but also palatable for the reader.
Which depends on the reader. I can’t stand stories where people do horrible things to each other and there’s no consequential fallout, unless the point of the story is to draw attention to the fact that this is, in fact, a bad state of affairs, and also a real one – sometimes bad things do go unpunished, a lot of the time in fact. But if the story suggests that this is not only okay but actually desirable, and can’t back it up with a very reasonable argument as to why, then I’m out. Hence why I will probably never stop bashing Twilight for its characters and the morality that it espouses when it comes to relationship dynamics, or The Lovely Bones for all the consequences that it failed to provide for certain characters’ actions, or Sucker-Punch for perpetuating sexist media trends, even if it was done with the intention of drawing attention to the existence of said trends and why they are bad, because in the end positive action is more powerful than negative reaction – I love me some subversion, but it’s still feeding into the thing it’s subverting. The strongest statement I can think of making against the kinds of trends Sucker-Punch was obviously addressing is telling a story that acts as though the trends it’s fighting against don’t even exist, to not even give them the time of day. Mostly I can’t stand Sucker-Punch because of what it could have been.
Anyway, I’ll be here all night if I don’t stop talking about that movie. Consistency is what I think I was missing the idea of when I started really seriously getting into this whole issue of character believability, and particularly the relationship between the characters and the narrative framework that they exist within, and how consistency runs through and intrinsically connects and defines them, not just to each other but to the audience. Hopefully so long as I can get consistency down pat, my characters will come across as ‘good’. And if not, well, it’s not like I can really do anything about it, short of asking my audience what kind of characters they want and then having them basically tell the story for me. And as fun as it could be to crowd-source a story (which I do think I want to try one day), I still want to be the one telling the stories. My stories at any rate. Those are mine. My own. My … well, you get the picture.
Speaking of which, I really am looking forward to getting back into the swing of writing. It feels like a long time, and I think six months has been long enough of a break. The 10th marks the day I first started Taking Things Seriously with drafting Tallulah, so that’s my new deadline to get started writing again, for no other reason than that it has symbolic significance. If you’re gonna make it arbitrary, you may as well go big.
Plus, this project feels like it’s earned an anniversary, simply for sticking around for as long as it has, and teaching me the things that it has about writing, and myself.
Also, I really did not expect this post to be this long … Oh well. It’s all writing.