Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cruelty to Characters

I’m thinking about my reaction to the Annie Proulx story. I took a class (well, several) with Mary Gordon in college, and I remember her scolding us: “Stop trying to think you have to tie up your stories with a pretty, pink bow. You can’t. You have to allow things to happen, even if they’re bad, even if they break your heart. You have to be honest about what happens to your characters. You can’t protect them.”

That is just so unfair.

I mean, you can’t protect your children – sure. They have to grow up and live in a world that’s going to push them around, and you have to get them ready for that. But your characters don’t have to do any such thing! They’re going to live in a goddamn book! What’s the point of putting them through such hell?

The answer, of course, is that those books are just going to sit unread if all I do is make nice-nice stories about pretty-pretty funtimes. So, you know. I get it. I do have to be honest.

But I’m still not really on board for this idea that there is a story out there, and I just have to be true to my characters and it’ll unearth itself like one of those worms in Tremors. I knew a woman in a writing class who said she hated her main character: “She just won’t stand up for herself. I had her beaten, raped, I made her have a baby – she just won’t stop whining and crying.” Buh. WRITE IT FOR HER. I mean, there has to be a middle ground between “I control my characters to the detriment of everyone’s entertainment” and “I’ve substituted fictional characters for the flies I used to pull the wings off of, isn’t that a step up?”

I struggle with boredom when I work from an outline, but the project I’m working on now is stalled because I don’t know what happens next, and I’m scared I’m going off in a wholly wrong direction. I hate feeling so at sea, but this is part of being brave and finding out what my characters want to do. And then telling them that’s really nice, but we’re only going to show about one-tenth of that. And teaching them to deal with their disappointment.

I can’t tie it up with a pretty pink bow, but there’s no way I’m going to let my characters tumble tits-up into a ditch. Unless the New Yorker says I have to. Hey, we all have a price.


a very public sociologist said...

Have you tried sticking to that conclusion, and then in parallel written an alternative?

Madfoot said...

I have not. My mom always told me to try that as a writing exercise, but trying on someone else's characters just feels creepy.