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Jun 26, 2009

Why Character Driven Fiction Can Be Subtle

I'm still at the research stage of my Secret Novel. I'm entering new territory with this novel. Dare I say it is literary?

Perhaps -- I've concluded after spying on the discussion over at The Literary Lab -- not.

Although the period of my piece is fairly contemporary, I see it as historical fiction. Some historical fiction is undoubtedly literary, but some must be mainstream. A definition to distinguish the two has been put forth: "what distinguishes literary fiction is what is left unsaid. Narrators may be self-absorbed or unreliable, things are pointed to without being explained." It is what happens "between the lines."

Thinking about a historical novel like The Source by James Michener, I wondered if what happens is between the lines. I decided, not really. The themes are deep and mind-blowing, almost incomprehensible, despite being stated as explicitly as possible.

I think most literary stories are character-focused and the game is all about inferring things about the characters from their actions, and the descriptions. Frankly, I think the reason it is easier to let these kind of stories be read between the lines is because most humans, perhaps especially most readers, have minds designed to understand other human minds. We cannot intuitively understand the passage of 6,000 years -- on the contrary, to be comprehensible, even this must be shown to us through characters. It must be brought to a human level.

When those other factors are not present, the focus on characters can be subtle in the extreme -- because we have (or at least some of us do) exceedingly refined cognitive powers of inference when it comes to unlocking human motives, emotions and relationships.

I recently finished The Favorite by Mary Yukari Waters. I don't often read the literary genre, so I wasn't certain what to expect. Indeed, for the first third of the book, I kept waiting for "something" to happen. All that appeared on stage was a bunch of female relatives taking tea together, going on walks, and talking about their family relationships. Okay, I get it, I thought, the relationshipsare the plot, but even so... I persevered and a strange thing happened. (Don't laugh, I'm new at this!) I truly began to feel I could enter the minds of these people, like a telepath. And I realized the illusion of telepathic powers was so convincing in part because nothing else dramatic was happening. It was as if I could reach in to the ordinary minds of ordinary people and experience their greatest fears, sorrows, joys and memories.

I have a recurrent fantasy, which often occurs to me when I am walking or driving, of acquiring the ability to read the minds of passers-by, total strangers. I wish to experience qualia as another does (the holy grail of philosophers), to become another person, then return to being myself with full comprehension of both.

There are, of course, many telepathic characters in science fiction, and even in wider fiction, but how convincing this telepathy is depends on the skill of the writer. If the writer is not also a telepath/empath, the portrayal can be weak indeed. According to the cognitive science "theory of theory of mind" (sic) we are all mind readers, to a greater or lesser extent. Those of us closer to the autistic side of the spectrum may prefer genres which tend to have flatter, easier-to-read characters, whereas those with highly honed hyper-acute mind reading skills may find flat characters painfully boring. Such readers need meatier fare, more subtly flavored, and salivate at the challenge of discerning every nuance of realistic relationships between imaginary minds.

I would love to be able to cook up such characters -- in theory. But am I really capable of focusing so finely on characters? I'm not sure. I tend to think more abstractly than empathically, and so I am frequently distracted by other sorts of patterns besides mind reading. I gravitate toward histories more than memories, philosophies more than personalities and clever ideas more than realistic characters.

I do want to mind read my characters as deeply and realistically as possible, but, I realize, not for their own sakes as much as for what they can tell me about their societies, cultures and the great events in which they've participated. In always grasping at the larger picture, I worry I may miss many of the subtle details.


writtenwyrdd said...

Very thoughtful post! I think that if you are attracted to a certain style, such as finely detailed portraiture of your characters, you might go ahead and try it and see if you like writing that way. You can always dial the focus up or down in later drafts, so no harm is done, right?

Davin Malasarn said...

This is an exquisite post. Very thought-provoking. You hit on so many important points. I do now think of literary fiction as another genre among the large list out there. And, to say that literary genre is similar to a mind-reading genre is, to me, quite accurate, though I had never thought of it that way before. While I tend to consider myself a literary fiction writer, I don't think it's the end-all-and-be-all of the writing world. Books serve so many functions, and recording history is at or near the top of the list of those functions for me. Great ideas, Tara. Thank you.

Tara Maya said...

writtenwyrdd, that's so self-evident, I never thought of it. You're right of course, I should try it before I talk myself out of even trying. It may or may not come out the way I wish, but it would be good to stretch the writerly muscles either way.

Davin, thank you. I'm trying to read a bit more in literary genre. It was through your blog I found The Favorite, and I'd be happy if you had any further recommendations. (In addition to the classics -- newer books.)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, your thoughts here so insightful. I'm starting to think in all sorts of directions! And you have taken that explanation from the agent and really deepened it something that I will internalize and keep as a permanent part of my own definition for literary! I haven't thought of character-driven fiction in this way before - as mind reading fiction.

In this respect, it's much easier to see how no genre is better than another. They are simply different, and tell stories in different ways and with different "mediums".

Dave said...

Wonderful thoughts!

I'm gonna have to read some of your stuff some day.

Davin Malasarn said...

Tara, Likewise, if you have books in your genre(s) you'd recommend, I'd really love to find out what they are.

For other books, for me, Anna Karenina is the best. I'd highly recommend it. Going along with your mind-reading idea, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf would probably be quite interested for you.

For more contemporary recommendations, you might consider Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. John Updike's Rabbit books are also very good: Rabbit, Run is the first.

Let me know if you read any of them!