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Exploring Emotional Depth with Jeff Vandermeer

In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we continue by taking a look at how Vandermeer builds complex emotional moments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

THE CHALLENGE
Recently, I read a new book on writing. This is actually a rare event for me, nowadays, and I only approached it to help myself re-orient for longer work. I wanted something that covered the standard-fare logic of novel writers in a concise way, and Kate Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL did the trick. One concept she covered, though, was something I had never encountered in detail before, and I think originated in the work of Dwight Swain. This was the distinction between a Scene and a Sequel. 

This terminology is a little confusing I think, but it’s attempting to show two different moments in fiction that look like this. 

A Scene is a moment in which a character has a goal, fights to overcome obstacles and in the end either succeeds or fails. 

A Sequel is a moment in which a character reacts to some external event, fights through a dilemma of some kind, and then decides what to do next, theoretically setting up a new goal scene. 

This concept strikes me as useful but limited and oversimplified. I’ll probably do a full analysis of it at some later date, taking a look at a few novels. But one thing I noticed while reading after learning this concept, is that books I enjoy tend to heavily favor sequels, which slow the pace, and the sequel is usually used to build out complex, layered emotional reactions. How do authors go about creating these layered reactions? 

THE STORY
The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

At its core, this novel is built from layered examinations of emotional reactions to change. Rachel reacts to epic changes in the city, to changes in Borne, to changes in Wick and in herself. There are one thousand moments of deep, layered emotional reaction that are truly wonderful, and we’re going to look just at one. 

THE SOLUTION
First, let’s take a look at a sequel on page 106. In this scene, Rachel reacts to an attack by what the novel calls a Proxy. Proxies are a bear-like biotech that goes around murdering people in the city, who take their likeness from the much-larger Mord. To protect them from the attack, Borne pretended to be a rock while hiding Rachel inside. This scenes takes place just after that. As you might expect, this is a longer scene, but also a beautiful one: 

In the old world, when I emerged with my parents from secret rooms or tunnels or caves or closets, we knew what we were returning to–the same place we had left, as dangerous or as safe as before. We had hidden so we could remain in that world, were saying we believed in that world no matter what. Because we had no choice. Because there was no better or worse world, there was just the place we came out into. 
     But when I emerged from Borne, out onto the rooftop again, I did not feel the same way. We had waited until Borne told me the Mord proxies had truly gone and all that remained below were the kinds of scavengers that would scatter at our approach. The cast-off biotech that could move, well or not so well, that came out nocturnal. 
     We had waited until nightfall, even then, and so when I stood outside of Borne the world had changed in more than one sense. It was not just that Borne had shielded me rather than the other way around. It was not the change in the sky. 
     Pieces of Borne had been torn from him by the Mord proxy in its suspicion. These pieces had bounced like rock, settled on the rooftop like rock, but now quivered and flexed like hands opening and closing, reformed as Borne flesh. 
     The Borne that faced me was, even in that dim light, scarred and misshapen. He had returned to his normal size and shape, the one that looked like an upside-down vase, that combined attributes of a squid and a sea anemone, but he had a slumped, subdued quality that I’d never seen in him before. 
     I winced to see that his left side was fissured and purpling-black and the ring of eyes, darkly luminous, circled his body in a haphazard way, like a rotting carnival ride one loose bolt away from spinning off into the crowd. He had a smell like turpentine and rotting fish sticks and moldy bandages. 
     “I’m sorry, Borne,” I said, feeling shaky. “I shouldn’t have brought you out here.” 
     Somehow they had known. Somehow they had known where we would be–but which ones? The ferals or the proxies? I was unwilling to accept that this had been just coincidence or bad luck. And also tumbling through my mind, an awful sense of responsibility: that if Borne hadn’t moved out, if Borne hadn’t pretended to be more like an adult, I might not have taken the chance. 
     “It is okay,” Borne said. “I need to learn. I need to know.”
     “But not by being hurt.” 
     “It’s not being hurt that hurts,” Borne said. 
     Borne might be alien to me, he might have more senses, he might do things no human could do . . . but I thought I understood what he was saying. (Although, did I, really?) He knew now that he could be harmed. He knew now that he was vulnerable. No joy would be the same for Borne. No playfulness, either. Because behind it would be this certain knowledge: that he could die. 
     “I’m tired, Rachel,” Borne said. “I need not to move for a while.”
     “That’s okay,” I said, and it was. If we had to make this rooftop our home for a few hours, I was prepared to do it. 
     It had cooled as the sun disappeared and the stars came out across an unusually cloudless sky. We were silent for a long time, and I made no move to go downstairs to recon. Borne needed my attention but I also think we both dreaded going downstairs. Neither of us wanted to experience the aftermath up close, even in the dark. But Borne was also looking up at the stars, all of his attention drawn there. 
     Borne was reaching out a tentative tentacle, as if to touch the stars. 
     He must have known he couldn’t, but I still said, “You can’t touch them!” 
     “Why not? Are they hot?” 
     “Yes, they are. But that’s not why. They’re very, very far away.” 
     “But my arms are so long, Rachel. My arms can be as long as I want.” 
     “That might be so, but . . .” I trailed off when I realized Borne was joking. He had a little tell when he joked–or it was actually a big tell. Some of his eyes would drift to the left, a particular cluster. He couldn’t control that. 
     “Diabolical,” he said, still captivated by what lay above. “Diabolical. Deadly. Delirious. Deep.” Four new words he’d been trying out. Except he had not learned “diabolical” from me, and I felt a twinge. Some book, some other source. 
     A normal night sky, but I was attuned to Borne in that moment and I saw it from his eyes–like a rush or an onslaught. Because as far as I knew, he had never seen the night sky so unguarded before–glimpses, maybe, from the Balcony cliffs at dusk or in his books. So many stars, so little light from the city to disguise them. It was just like I remembered it from our island sanctuary so long ago. Walking down the beach and not needing a flashlight because the stars were so strong. 
     A glittering reef of stars, spread out phosphorescent, and each one might have life on it, planets revolving around them. There might even be people like us, looking up at the night sky. It was what my mother said sometimes–to be mindful that the universe beyond still existed, that we did not know what lived there, and it might be terrible to reconcile ourselves to knowing so little of it, but that didn’t mean it stopped existing. There was something else beyond all of this, that would never know us or our struggles, never care, and that it would go on without us. My mother had found that idea comforting. 
     Borne’s many eyes became stars as he watched them, and his skin turned the color of velvety night, until he was just a Borne shaped reflection. So many eyestalks arose from him that his body flattened away to nothing, into an irregular pool of flesh across most of the roof, the edge lapping up against my boots. I could still see how he had been injured, because he looked like a circle that had had a bite taken out of it. Each eyestalk ended in three-dimensional representation of a star, and the stars clustered until he was a field of stars rising from the rooftop, forming nebulae and galaxies, and a few fireflies like meteorites across the depth and breadth of him. 
     “It’s beautiful,” he said, from across the star field of his body. “It’s beautiful.” 
     For once what he thought of as beautiful really was beautiful. It was as if we had become closer even as he exhibited more alien attributes, but I quashed that with an instant of wariness. Was he truly without guile? Wasn’t this repetition because of my reaction about the polluted river? But even if I suspected “beautiful” was just making conversation or in some other way for my benefit, I knew that he’d taken this form to begin to heal, that there was something comforting about it, something that had helped him. 
     “What are they?” Borne asked. “Are they . . . lights like in the Balcony Cliffs? Or . . . electrical lights? Who turned them on?” So whatever he’d seen in books hadn’t explained stars. At all. 
     “No one turned them on,” I said, realizing after I’d said it that I’d just discounted thousands of years of religion. But it was too late to turn back. 
     “No one?”
     “We’re on a world,” I told him, not knowing what gaps existed from his reading. “We’re on a world that revolves around a star, which is a giant ball of fire. So enormous that if it weren’t so distant we would all be dead–burned up. We call it the sun–and the sun is what you thought wasn’t nice when it shone so bright on you the other day. But all of those points of light above are also suns, even farther away, and they all have worlds, too.” 
     My eyesight had gotten blurry telling Borne this, the aftershock of our ordeal hitting me. 
     “All of them? Every single one? But that’s like hundreds.” 
     “Thousands. Maybe millions.” 
     Across the star fields of Borne’s body there coalesced one great sun in the center, also atop a stalk. Heretical was his astronomy at this point. He’d become metaphorical or metaphysical or just silly. 
     “But that’s incredible,” Borne said, quietly. “That’s amazing. That’s devastating.” 
     Then something began to blot out the stars, to turn that glittering, shining brilliance into a great and final darkness. 
     “And what is that?” Borne asked, as if it was something normal, something else he didn’t know about yet, and he trusted me to tell him, to let him know what to think about it. 
     I was speechless, because for an instant I thought the world was ending, that fate had conspired to put us on that roof to watch the end of . . . everything.  
     Then I realized what we were seeing, and I couldn’t help a stifled chuckle. Oh, this was rich! Because it was the end of the world. 
     “What’s so funny, Rachel?” An edge to that voice as Borne withdrew from the edge of my toes, drew himself up into his normal form, still sagging, still wounded. 
     “That’s Mord,” I said. 
     Yes, it was Mord–floating and diving across the night sky, high up, so huge that even from a distance he blotted out the stars. Across the night sky the giant bear Mord glided, seething, and we could hear faint rasps and roaring from the stratosphere, the chocking gasps of his rage. Snuffing out first this constellation then that one, his form as it occluded the stars making me aware of them again. His was the greater darkness, and although I feared him and hated him and despised him, Mord was still, in that moment, the purest reflection of the city. 
     “Moooooordddddddddd,” Borne said in a kind of hissing way, and I saw even in the reflected light that every inch of Borne’s unscarred surface had become sharp, jagged, pointed like spears and spikes, and the eyes now revolving tracked Mord’s obliterating progress like gun emplacements tracking aircraft. Strafed Mord’s position with analytics and calculations and trajectories. 
     “He’s very far away,” I said, in a soothing tone. “He can’t hurt you.” Neither statement was entirely true. 
     “That is what you mean by Mord proxy,” Borne said, “This is the source.” 
     “Yes.”
     “They are his children.”
     “In a way, yes.” 
     “Why would he let his children do that to other children?” 
     I didn’t have a good answer for him, but I was sure that Borne had an idea of what he was looking at. We had turned Mord into the boogieman in his imagination, the monster under the bed. Don’t go outside, don’t do this, don’t do that because: Mord. But now Borne had been mauled by one of Mord’s emissaries, and he was trying to understand Mord. The real Mord. 
     Mord continued to dip and glide and wheel and drop across the sky like a god. 
     “Mord is beautiful,” Borne said with disdain. “Mord is strong. Mord is not nice.” From his tone, I believe Borne was beginning to parody his own innocence. 
     “Mostly not nice. Remember the not-nice part. Avoid him.” 
     “He kills the stars,” Borne said. “He kills the stars and brings darkness.” 
     “The stars all come back, though.” 
     “But not the people down below.” 
     You killed four of them yourself, back at the Balcony Cliffs, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

My first step, when I want to write about a novel, and I’m not sure what to write about, is to re-read and outline it. I’ve used a lot of different methods to outline, but for BORNE, I used the Scene/Sequel distinction I discovered in Weiland’s book, refering to these as (Goal) scenes and (React) scenes, because the language is clearer, and because I did change up the idea a little to suit my own purposes (it makes no sense to me, for instance, to see a scene as separate if it takes place at the same setting with the same characters and no line break, just because the goal ends). This outline was quite useful, but limited, as you can see below in my outline of this scene: 

(React) to attack of Mord Proxies (pg 106 – 112)
Reaction: Rachel thinks about coming out of caves as a kid; ready to wait in secret until nightfall; to watch the stars; track how Borne has changed & show his reactions; Borne mimics the stars & galaxies, he thinks they’re beautiful; cry while explaining stars and planets to Borne. 
Dilemma: trying to explain stars to Borne; apologizing to him; Borne needs to heel; tries to understand Mord. 
Decision: Not much of one. Borne decides Mord is not nice. 

As you can see, getting the scene to fit into this outline requires the removal of a lot of richness, and the stirring around of elements. That’s fine for the purposes of outlining after the fact, as a reader, and I’d bet it would be helpful when outlining after the fact as a writer, too, before revising. It’s fine for getting a high level overview of the story. But a lot is lost in translation. To be fair, many of Vandermeer’s shorter scenes cut much closer to the proper breakdown, and some wonderful scenes fit perfectly. But for our purposes here, a more detailed outline is probably necessary: 

1 (React) to Borne’s injury
     Reaction: To remember how it felt when she emerged from hiding with her parents (always the same world) and connect that with her feeling emerging from Borne (a different world in several ways); go over Borne’s injuries with detailed description 
     Dilemma: How responsible is Rachel for Borne’s injuries? Why did the attack happen? How should Borne learn about the violence of the city? 
     Decision: Borne needs to not move for a while. Rachel decides to “make this rooftop their home” for a few hours. 
2 (React) to the “unguarded” stars and Borne’s injury
     Reaction:
Borne tries to reach out and touch them; Rachel stops him, almost panicked, remembers the stars of her past, and experiences the stars like Borne must “like a rush or an onslaught.” Borne transforms himself into a little solar system. 
     Dilemma:
What are stars? Rachel teaches Borne about stars while the trauma of the attack finally hits her (she cries)
     Decision:
none–interrupted by the stars starting to go black–
3 (React) to Mord and the stars and Borne’s injury
     Reaction:
Mord asks what the mass in front of the stars is; Rachel at first speechless, thinking the world is ending, then realizes she’s seeing Mord and laughs, “because it was the end of the world.” 
     –describe Mord and his blocking out the stars–
     Reaction:
Borne forms himself into a bunch of spikes that track Mord’s flight
     Dilemma:
Why does Mord let his proxies hurt people? 
          Exposition:
Rachel and Wick have made Mord a boogeyman for Borne
     Decision:
Mord is not nice–Borne decides, and Rachel reaffirms. 

 A closing thought from Rachel: Mord might kill people, but so does Borne. 

With this new outline, we find a really common strategy that Vandermeer uses in Borne: he creates a series of nested reactions, each one built on the last. 

So why not consider each of these three reactions as a separate scene? 

Because they are tied together in time and because they are tied together, most importantly, on an emotional level. All three off these is a step further in Borne and Rachel reacting to the attack, to Borne’s injuries. In the first arc, we find Rachel reacting to Borne’s injuries, placing blame on herself; in the second, we can see Borne contemplating “the vastness of the universe” and his own mortality through the stars; in the third, we can see him coming to terms with why it’s bad to kill and to hurt with Mord, his boogeyman, as the central focus, in a way that will be very important later. 

What I notice first about how these reactions are nested: each one is tied to some physical, external element of the narrative. First, Borne’s injuries; then the stars; and lastly Mord, flying by. That physical element acts as an important touchstone for the development of each arc, creating the surface level subject of Rachel and Borne’s dialogue and giving the narration some change in the setting to describe. 

I think the choice of these physical touchstones is vital. 

For starters, the easiest, most obvious touchstone is Borne’s injuries. This is clearly what Rachel would focus on, because they make acute the stakes of Rachel bringing Borne outside. This is what any normal person would notice first and feel strongly about; this is the logical thing for them to debate in the “dilemma” part of the scene. But it also has the chance to be the most melodramatic, so after the apology, Vandermeer has the conversation sizzle out. We can make sense of the conversation ending: Rachel feels guilty, and knows nothing she can say or do will make it better. Rachel introduces the idea that Borne will, through this attack, gain a sense of his own mortality.

But then the stars intrude.

The choice of stars is interesting; in part because the attack Rachel is reacting to happened during the day, meaning that if Vandermeer wants to view the stars, he needs them to wait until nightfall, which they do. When we hear the conversation about the stars, it feels like getting away from thinking about the attack and nearly dying (lowering the tension, to a degree), and I think it is, in a way, but really only through abstraction. We can see, in the way that Borne spreads himself out and transforms himself into the night sky, that Borne is getting some pleasure from contemplating the universe, but as soon as he says “That’s amazing. That’s devastating” we get a glimpse at the nuance of this moment.

We can see how he’s connecting the universe to his own new-found sense of mortality (this is of course an association with a long history in world literature), and how we have not actually stopped reacting to the attack. But Vandermeer does not stop at “devastating,” he makes the connection explicit by wrapping around to Mord. Tension roars back. 

Mord flying, blotting out the stars, is perfect. 

It wraps the conversation back around to the proxies, making it quite clear that they never really stopped talking about the attack, and but it doesn’t quite leave the universe, since Mord is in the sky. 

Rachel’s reaction to Mord rings true, also. She’s afraid at first, of some abstract end of the universe, but when the real danger makes itself clear, she just laughs. Partly because Mord actually is laughable, but also because he does, for her, represent the end of the world, a symbol of the city. We can see in this that she’s turned to nihilism of a kind, even without a prolonged discussion of why she reacts this way. Borne then tries to understand Mord, the way he now understands stars, and this discussion is much shorter, because Rachel knows little about Mord. In this moment, though, I think it’s clear that when Borne tries to understand Mord, what he’s thinking about is himself, his own mortality, the possibility that Mord could kill him. 

They come together to the conclusion that Mord is “not nice,” and Rachel means it on a literal level, but Borne comes to a broader conclusion: killing is not nice. Here Borne is reflecting on his own actions, the people he’s “absorbed,” and Rachel picks up on this, as we see in the final line. 

That also leads well into another point I want to make. A lot of the time when I write, I treat emotions and reactions as something that happens in isolation, inside the character. This scenes does a lot to counteract that, because so much of the emotional depth spawns not from direct thoughts (although some of it does) but instead from the interplay between the external touchstones and the conversation around them. A lot of it comes from the way these two characters dance around what they really should say: “Someday, both of us will die. Maybe everyone.” Instead, Borne tries to distract himself and Rachel, but ends up circling back around, constantly on the edge of acknowledging their mortality. So much more emotional depth is possible in this scene because it starts as two characters interacting. 

FINALLY
The last question, I suppose, is how do you go about building this sort of scene? 

Knowing a little about Vandermeer’s process, it’s likely that this scene occurred to him at least in part through introspection. He has a rather organic method, but he does a lot of revision, too, so it’s likely that some element of this was introduced, cut back, or changed to make the scene work. 

Other than that, it’s a hard question to answer. This scene is stunning. It relies on a lot of built-up meaning behind the symbolism of Mord in the book, and deep-rooted real world symbolism that connects the sky with death, which Vandermeer makes explicit on the page. That takes a lot of thought and a layered understanding of what you want the scene to accomplish. It takes a consciousness about what objects are taking on resonance in your work and what objects already have resonance in the real world. It takes sharp revision efforts. 

If you’re working on a scene in which a character reacts deeply to some event in the narrative, how would you go about anchoring that process? How would you proceed? Do you have any examples you return to in reading?

How to Write Arguments with Jeff Vandermeer

It’s taken a long time to figure out what I wanted to talk about RE: BORNE. There’s so much of interest in this book, such a wonderful mix of experimental and traditional elements and approaches. In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we’ll start by discussing how Vandermeer approaches character arguments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

THE CHALLENGE
For me, writing arguments has always been difficult. I’ve tended to just avoid them, wherever possible, but that means that tensions bubbling under the surface never end up paying off! But when I started trying to bring them to the fore, it constantly felt like I was falling prey to melodrama, and I’d leave the page feeling sick. 

So how do you avoid this? How can you write an argument that works, that evokes real arguments, and moves the story forward? 

THE STORY
Although Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE is easily one of my favorite novels, my relationship with it is a little messy. Like the book itself, I’d say. It’s a rewarding read, if you can make it to the end, and there’s a lot of good to learn from it, despite its flaws (which I’ll get into in a later post, likely). It’s a bold, strange, experimental kind of SciFi that just feels different from anythings else I’ve read, from the gritty prose to the sweeping braided narrative that combines the personal and the epic. 

The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

Most arguments in this story take place between Rachel and Wick, because their relationship is central to the real plot of the story. This give us a wealth of examples, but I’ll be primarily looking at two. One toward the front of the story, which is a good example of most of the arguments in the book, and one about half way through, which is a sort of pivotal moment (and full of spoilers). 

THE SOLUTION 

Example 1. (Pg 49-50): Wick wants Rachel to give him Borne, so he can tear him apart and figure out what he is. 
     In the morning, with Mord and the weight of Mord just a bad dream, Wick tried again. 
     “I can do it in a gentle way,” he said, but that didn’t reassure me. “I can return him the way he is now.” 
     “No.” 
     His weight went taut against my back. 
     “I shouldn’t have to ask. You should know it’s the best thing.”
     “It’s not.”
     “You know something’s not right, Rachel.” Now he was almost shouting. 
     Like most men, Wick could not help terror about one thing erupting as anger about something else. So I said nothing. 
     But he wouldn’t let up. “Give me Borne,” he said. 
     I refused to turn to look at him. 
     “You need to give him to me, so we know what he is. He lives here, among us, and you protect him in a way that’s unnatural. This thing you know nothing about.” 
     “No.”
     “He may be influencing you using biochemicals,” Wick said. “You may not know your own mind.”
     I laughed at that, even though it could be true. 
     “You have no right, Rachel,” he said, and there was a wounded quality to the word right.
     “Tell me about your time at the Company.” I was tired of talking, just tired period. “Tell me all about your weird telescope.” 
     But he had nothing to say about his telescope. He had nothing else to say at all, and neither did I. We both new that one word more and either I would leave his bed or he would ask me to leave.

This is the most common form that Rachel and Wick’s arguments take. This is one of the first fully fleshed arguments in the book (there are a few attempts to start one earlier, rapidly cut off) and all of these do the work of setting up that later, more explosive argument. 

What interests me here is how this argument is restrained but allowed to flourish because of a diversity of tactics. In previous attempts to get Borne from Rachel, Wick was too lenient, too unwilling to confront her; here, he’s very direct, and comes at it using rational, persuasion tactics. We know, though, that it’s undergirded with paranoia, with maybe understandable fear. Meanwhile, Rachel is sticking her ground, not really engaging with the actual arguments Wick is making, and looking for an opening to change the subject, which she does later, to the effect of stopping the conversation.  It’s Rachel’s refusal to engage that cuts off the argument before it can get too dramatic, that keeps it controlled as we continue to build up context for the big fight. 

But another thing of note is how Rachel is shown to be hyper-aware of Wick’s motivations and feelings. She tells us that his shouting (which seems to come out of nowhere) is because of terror “about one thing.” This argument is rationalized to us just as soon as it needs to be. But also, once he starts really making his argument, she also acknowledges it as rational and possible.

Part of the brilliance of this fight is that we’re learning a lot about Rachel and Wick, and we have Rachel’s sense of self-awareness to thank. Without the editorializing she does, this scene would feel chaotic and confusing, and we wouldn’t know exactly how to evaluate each of these characters. 

That said, let’s move on to the more complex, and harder to pull off, Example 2, the major blowup later in the story. 

Example 2 (p126 – 130): The Magician has forced Wick into a deal that will open up their fortress/home (the Balcony Cliffs) to her soldiers. 
     Three years later, the Magician’s spirit had snuck right into the room with me, between me and Wick. She might also make her headquarters well to the west, in the ruined observatory, but she had found a way to make her influence felt from afar–because we were weak, because our supplies were running low and Wick could see no other way out. She had found a way in because she’d always been there. 
     Borne had gone quiet above us as our voices had gotten louder and Wick had gotten more defensive. 
     “We are not giving up the Balcony Cliffs,” I said. We were not giving up Borne, either. I was tired and drunk, drunk, drunk, but this I knew. 
     “We wouldn’t be giving them up,” Wick said, with little enthusiasm. “People would move in here, help us fortify it. We live here alone. How long do you think that can last?” 
     “It’s lasted pretty long already, Wick.”
     I crammed another minnow in my mouth. Probably my fifth. We were both acting like if we finished off every alcohol minnow in the land tonight we wouldn’t care. 
     “We’re lucky we held out this long.”
     “Why now? Tell me why she’s asking now?”
     “I think she is planning something big. I think her plans are almost set.” Wick’s voice had lowered to a whisper, as if the Magician were listening, which only made me madder. 
     “And how did she reach out? Did she capture you on one of your drug runs? Did she give you all kinds of promises you know she can’t keep? And if she did, how did you make it back here? Why didn’t she just hold on to you?”
     “The Magician’s not asking. The Magician’s telling. That’s what she does these days–tells people things, and people do them.”
     The Magician on one hill and Wick on the other, communicating via hand signals or semaphore. 
     “Who reached out, Wick? Her or you?” 
     He mumbled something, stood, wrapped his hands around the sides of his chair, tapped its legs against the floor a couple of times. 
     “He said he reached out Rachel,” Borne said helpfully from the ceiling. 
     “Borne, stay out of this!” we both shouted at him. 
     “But you said you didn’t hear him and I thought you’d want to know.” 
     “Go back to my apartment and I’ll come check to make sure you’re all right before you go to bed,” I said. 
     “Sure, Rachel. I can go back to your apartment.” 
     Borne sounded dejected, or maybe I just expected he would. Slowly, he slid down the wall, congealed into an upright Borne position, resuscitated his eyes, and left us. If there was a whiff of indignation spider fart left behind, I tried to ignore it, just as I tried to ignore putting Wick’s revelation before Borne’s injuries. 
     “I wanted nothing except to be left alone,” Wick said. “That’s all I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted.” 
     Familiar refrain. I’d never asked why he wanted to be left alone, though. That’s Wick, I always thought. Wick likes to be left alone.
     “It will destroy us, Wick. How can you trust her?”
     “How am I supposed to trust you?” he said. “You brought Borne in here. You won’t get rid of him. The proxies are getting worse–everything is getting worse. We have no choice.” 
     “You know what will happen to Borne when she takes over.”
     Wick shrugged, a shrug that said it wouldn’t be his problem then, and maybe he even hoped once Borne became someone else’s responsibility I would come to my senses, and we would be the “us” and Borne would be one of “them.” 
     “But that’s not even the worst thing, Wick, and you know it.” 
     Wick looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” 
     “The feral children I saw tonight are the same as the ones who attacked me here in Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “There are many terrible people in the city,” Wick said. “Lots of terrible people.” 
     “The ones tonight acted like a patrol, as if they were working for someone. Do you know who? I think you know who.” I wanted badly to say it. 
     “You should get some rest,” Wick said. “You should go to bed.” He wouldn’t look at me, even when I shoved myself in front of him. Yet it didn’t matter. the perverse thing was I knew Wick so well, and he knew me so well, that we both understood what I meant. It was almost the least of what we were conveying to each other in that moment. But still I pushed, because it had to be said out loud. 
     “That night the Magician’s people snuck in and attacked me. It wasn’t something random. They attached because the Magician was sending you a message–and you knew that, and you didn’t tell me.” 
     “I never knew,” Wick protested. “I never knew she would do that. Everything I did was so nothing would happen to you. Can you look me in the eye and say you think I wanted that to happen to you? No, never.” 
     “Wick, you withheld information. You were in trouble with her and you didn’t tell me.” To his credit, he wasn’t trying to deny it now. 
     “Would you have done anything different in my place?” Wick asked, shouting. “And would you have been extra-extra careful instead of extra-careful coming back that night? No and no. And we’d be in the same place right now. No matter what I did–unless I just handed over the Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “You didn’t trust me!” I shouted back. “You don’t fucking trust me.” 
     “It has nothing to do with trust,” Wick said, exasperated, pained. “Nothing at all to do with trust.” He said trust like it was a corrosion. 
     “If I had known, Wick, it would have helped. You would have been more open with me, you wouldn’t have seemed so closed off, secretive. Don’t you see that the Magician drove a wedge between us, that she wanted you to protect me from her demands? To cut you off from me?” 
     “You cut yourself off from me. You did that all on your own–by bringing Borne into our lives and not letting go of him. By clinging to him. You did that. You did that!” 
     “Did you know the Magician tried to recruit me three years ago?” I asked.       “Did you know that Wick? Of course you didn’t. I kept that from you because I didn’t wan the Magician to have more leverage over you than she already has!”
      A cry of frustration from Wick. “How in the name of fuck is that different than me trying to protect you by not telling you things? It’s not different at all! No difference! And I don’t even care!” 
     We were screaming at each other, pointing at each other, but we couldn’t stop.  
     “The difference is, Wick, you’re hiding other things from me. You’re hiding why the Magician has leverage over you in the first place. You’re hiding secrets in your apartment you think I don’t know about.” 
     That brought him up short, but then he realized I couldn’t know his secrets–i just had clues–because he’d been so careful.
     “I don’t have secrets!” he lied. “I don’t have any secrets you need to know about.”
     “You don’t have any secrets I need to know about,” I repeated. “Do you know how stupid that sounds? Well maybe in the morning you’ll remember some secrets I do need to know about. Like the fish project. Like a broken telescope or a metal box full of biotech. Like not ever telling me about your family. Maybe in them morning you’ll realize just how much I might need to know if we’re goin to live together.” 
     Wick got up, started furiously stirring the crap in his swimming pool with a long piece of wood, his back to me. 
     “Isn’t there somewhere else you need to be? Someone else you need to be with?” Accusing, stabbing, but also hurt. I could tell he was hurt, too. 
     We were locked into these positions from the beginning. Wick trying to shield me and do the right thing, conflicted about what that meant . . . and me naive enough to think I could believe in Wick and Borne at the same time. Corrupted by that. Both of us aware, from the remote position looking down on ourselves, that regret, guilt and even arguing distracted us from getting on with the business of trying to survive. 
     I stalked out, intending to join Borne like I’d promised. 


First things first: I’m not sure this scene avoided melodrama.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word. You could argue that it’s not melodrama if it works, or if it develops the characters well. Kind of a “know it when I see it” defense. But these characters are literally screaming at each other and, according to the narration, pointing at each other! There’s a lot of drunken “well did you know THIS?” and “It’s all your faults!” in more specific language. 
It’s possible, reading it out of context, that it reads as melodramatic to you. But it didn’t when reading the novel itself, and that’s perhaps one insightful lesson: out of context, almost any blow-out argument is going to feel melodramatic.

If this were on page one of the novel, it would feel melodramatic.

This scene avoids melodrama only because it is built from the massive quilt of context that comes before it. We’ve been waiting for this blow out for some time; it feel inevitable. The dangers of Borne and the Magician and Wick’s secret past have all been built up in complex, powerful, intrusive ways and this is the point in the story where all of those come to a head.

One interpretation could certainly be that, although the argument is melodramatic, we forgive that because we want the argument to happen at this point. 

And maybe that’s all there is to it. 

But that’s not the only thing here that seems intended to save the argument. Part of the effort seems to be to convince you that these characters (especially Rachel) can act this way toward each other. 

This effort begins with a fun prop: alcohol. Rachel and Wick are “drunk, drunk, drunk” and we all know how drunk people are, don’t we. That primes them for this fight, taking away all their silly inhibitions and making it more believable that they would engage with each other in this childish way. I think it’s easy to underestimate the work this simple trick is doing in the scene. 

For the rest of this analysis, I think it’ll be good to have a point by point outline of sorts as to how this fight proceeds. 

1- Start out with a relatively logical discussion about what it will mean to share the Balcony Cliffs with the Magician and whether that is an actual option.
2-Wick points out they were lucky to live there alone even this long, and that prompts Rachel to enter investigation mode.
3- Why did the Magician reach out now? (Wick answers simply)
4-How did the magician reach out for the ask? (Wick dodges this question)
5-Wick’s dodge prompts an accusatory question: Who reached out, Wick or the Magician? (Wick answers, quietly, Borne clarifies his answer) 
6-They kick out Borne together, unified front here. 
7-Rachel starts accusing in Earnest: “How can you trust her?” 
8-Wick hits back “How can I trust you?” This brings Borne into the conversation. 
9-After a few more back and forths, Rachel brings up that the kids who attacked her earlier were likely the Magician’s soldiers (they laid her up for weeks, hurting her very badly) and suggests that Wick knew the Magician would come for her. 
10-here Wick starts to disengage, try to escape the fight. 
11-Biggest, most dramatic accusation: You didn’t trust me, and it got me hurt. Wick’s secrets are a danger to Rachel, his secret past, his secret present, etc. 
12-Wick moves to protect his secrets (his top motive, really) 
13- We end with an insightful paragraph, a bit of editorializing about the fight that acknowledges Wick’s feelings and how they align with and differ from Rachel’s. 

This is a super complex scene and there’s a lot of great stuff here. But notice how the argument starts in a very logical, bandying back and forth place, and it stays there a while. It has an almost journalistic logic (Why? How? Who?) during the whole first half, prompted by Rachel. Borne’s intrusion then gives us a momentary break from the drama, and his kicking out marks the big turning point in the fight–after this they become freer to accuse, to be dramatic.

This makes a ton of sense, from an emotional intelligence point of view. Once the child is out of the room, they feel more free to be childish and mean themselves. 
Also, at this point, other elements start to get folded into the argument. This is not just an argument about the Magician anymore. Their whole lives get folded in and all their anxieties, first Borne, then the attack Rachel suffered, and then Wick’s secretive past (arguably these are the 3 most important elements driving the plot). This argument takes a lot of space and energy, but it’s doing a TON of work to tie together disparate elements, even creating a causal chain that didn’t exist before. This must be part of how the scene gets away with such a heated argument. 

Once the argument gets to Wick’s secrets, he tries instantly to disengage. It’s very sudden, and it puts a lot of emphasis on Wick’s secrets in a way that will create a lot of suspense later on. But it also switches Rachel and Wick’s roles from the previous argument, with Rachel pushing the argument and Wick refusing to look at him. This shows how they both have their specific drives, their limits. 

Finally, and I think this is incredibly important: we get a moment of self-reflection, in which Rachel acknowledges Wick’s feelings and shows how they are similar or different to hers. She knows why this fight happened, can rationalize it, and thus rationalizes it for us. This little moment of self-awareness almost certainly saves this scene, because it gets us into the mind of the characters, helps us to explicitly understand it. It also foreshadows a later development. 

FINALLY
There’s a lot going on in this scene. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve almost certainly noticed something I haven’t. Let me know in the comments. 
Do you have a scene you return to as a touchstone example of an argument in fiction? How does that writer manage the argument so that it’s dramatic without becoming farcical? How do you approach this stuff in your own work? 

Emotion in Dialogue with Ursula K. LeGuin


Just as I’m re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I get the news. Ursula K. Le’Guin, a writer whose work has taught me more than maybe any other, has passed away. So I’m writing this as a tribute of sorts to her, for what little its worth. I’d like to start by taking a look at how she delivers emotion during dialogue. 

THE CHALLENGE
There’s a difficult balance to strike when we try to emote through fiction, but I have frequently pinballed between the extremes of melodrama and distant emotionlessness. The common advice for avoiding melodrama and evoking emotion is to show your character’s emotions instead of telling them.

Speaking from experience, taking this advice to its extreme leads to scenes that read as overly technical and distant, and makes it hard for readers to actually understand the emotion that the writer is trying to portray. 

LeGuin gives us a much more nuanced look at delivering emotions during dialogues.

THE STORY
The Left Hand of Darkness is a technical masterpiece. It manages to be a largely internal, introspective piece of fiction that still maintains a slow burning suspense for 300 pages. Its key selling point, for a lot of readers, is the deeply imagined world it explores, one that overturns and re-imagines some of Western society’s longest held institutional and social structures. 

It also has an interesting way of depicting the narrator’s emotions during dialogue, which can be seen in the following short excerpt. At this point in the story, we know that the narrator (Genly Ai) is a visitor from a distant planet (Earth) who often struggles to engage with a society he doesn’t understand. His key guide in this world is Estraven, the Prime Minister of this monarchy, and after two years, Estraven has finally invited Genly to his home for dinner. 

Pg12 – 15: “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “that I’ve had to forestall for so long this pleasure of having you in my house; and to that extent at least I’m glad there is no longer any question of patronage between us.” 
     I puzzled at this a while. He had certainly been my patron in court until now. Did he mean that the audience he had arranged for me with the king tomorrow had raised me to an equality with himself? “I don’t think I follow you,” I said. 
     At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. “Well, you understand,” he said at last, “being here . . . you understand that I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king of course.”
     He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was a significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the King. Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and cooly announced that he was withdrawing his support. 
    “You’ve led me to rely on you–“
    “It was ill done.”
    “Do you mean that, having arranged this audience, you haven’t spoken in favor of my mission to the king as you–” I had the sense to stop short of “promised.”
     “I can’t.” 
     I was very angry, but I met neither anger nor apology in him. 
     “Will you tell me why?”
     After a while he said, “Yes,” and then paused again. During the pause I began to think that an inept and undefended alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the workings of government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor–prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it. 
     “Did you hear what the king said to me at the ceremony today?”
     “No.”
     Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, lifted the beer-jug out of the hot ashes and refilled my tankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, “The king didn’t speak to you in my hearing.” 
     “Nor in mine,” said he. 
     I saw at last that I was missing another signal. Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, “Are you trying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you’re out of favor with the king?”
     I think he was angry then, but he said nothing that showed it, only, “I’m not trying to tell you anything Mr. Ai.”
     “By God, I wish you would.” 
     He looked at me curiously. “Well then, put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here.”
     And so you’re hurrying to join them, selling me out to save your skin, I thought, but there was no point in saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, and I a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man. His inviting me to dinner showed that he thought I would accept his betrayal as easily as he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty. So I brought myself to say, “I’m sorry that your kindness to me has made trouble for you.” Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense of moral superiority, but not for long; he was too incalculable. 

THE SOLUTION
Begin with the final paragraph. That’s where all of Le’Guin’s work to this moment really pays off–the conversation after this point veers off in another direction, and this paragraph punctuates this short exchange. Quite powerfully, I’d say. It seems clear to me that what the character feels here is anger and betrayal. 

How is this passage accomplishing that? 

Clearly, LeGuin is telling, to a certain degree. She doesn’t say “I felt angry and betrayed” but she’s not quite showing anything–there isn’t a lot of sensory detail there. We don’t have a scene or even a physical action. What we do have is an interpretation of events delivered to us. Genly Ai interprets Estraven’s motives delivers them to us in a pithy, obviously angry speech. The feelings are more specific than vague adjectives such as “angry.” Instead of saying “I’m angry,” Ai says “Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty” revealing a clear break in values for our narrator.

Out of context, this paragraph could easily read as melodramatic. 

But it doesn’t, because of all the work that’s been done to build to this point to add context and weight to the relationship between these two characters. So what is the context? 

Let’s take a look at the context LeGuin adds in order. 

1. Before we even get to this conversation, we have a fairly drawn out section of the narrator wondering why he’s been invited to dinner only now, two years into his relationship with Estraven. This mystery is built up for several pages, until we feel the answer is so important that we need to know it. (And a note of genius here: the mystery is actually prolonged by the cultural differences and understandings between these characters). 

2. Ai interprets the way that Estraven is speaking in line with his fears (“He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself”). Because it is obviously interpretive, as readers we sense this may not be the answer–we have seen Ai misinterpret people several times already in this novel. 

3. Ai gives us a very specific, detailed breakdown of his relationship with Estraven. It shows how helpful Estraven has come to be, and why Ai has grown to trust him. Although it’s really told through summary, it’s evocative to a certain degree because of how specific it is. We get a mini montage, we come to understand that Estraven is Ai’s only help in this world. This important piece of context helps us understand Ai’s emotional motivations. 

4. Notice that most of the outward dialogue does not truly betray Ai’s emotional state. With the context, we can sense that he’s growing emotional in some way, but also it feels like he’s holding back. It’s important for him not to have some insane outward explosion of emotion–it would feel melodramatic. There are 2 key exceptions to this: 

This line: “You’ve led me to rely on you–” 
–This line shows the rising sense of betrayal. A less skilled writer might have grown off of this, but LeGuin squashes it immediately, not even allowing Ai to finish the sentence before Estraven apologizes. 

And finally, this line: “I’m sorry that your kindness to me had made trouble for you.” 
–LeGuin describes this as “coals of fire” which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the entire conversation. The conversation burns red with anger, but not like fire, in wild spurts, but subtly, controlled. This piece of dialogue is of course magnificent in part because it’s anger parading as an apology. This is Ai’s attempt to undercut Estraven’s face-saving techniques. 

FINALLY
You can probably guess the short answer to building emotion: context. When you want an emotional moment, it’s important for you to understand your character’s emotional motivation–why do they feel the way they feel in this moment? LeGuin here delivers that context through conflict and misunderstandings and through detailed, specific summary. It’s the history between these characters that opens up the emotional motivation of the character.

Character Change in Flash Fiction with Lydia Davis

Written by  mglyde in 


Clicking the image to the left will take you to NPR’s website for the story “The Old Dictionary” by Lydia Davis, which I read in an anthology called The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. I highly recommend this collection if you’re interested in literary fiction at all–one reviewer criticized it for trying “too hard” to entertain, generally a sign that it’s from the “light side” of lit fiction. We’re going to be talking today about character change, tightly compressed into flash. Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Challenge: 

In short fiction, finding believable space for character change can be a challenge, yet often a story feels empty without it. So how can you pull this off–how have other people pulled this off? That’s what I aim to find out.

To get as nitty-gritty as possible, let’s look at a really impressive flash fiction story. 

The Story:

Who better than Lydia Davis for this exploration? Her work can get unbelievably short (and sure, some of it might just be poetry) and is also entertaining, believable, and moving. The last bit, the “moving” part, always impresses me, and is one of the things that made “The Old Dictionary” stand out to me. 

It’s the story of a researcher and her realization about how she treats her son. By the end of the story she decides to change. How does Davis pull this off? In ways both complex and simple. 

Give it a read. It’s quick, and beautiful. 

The Solution:

Ultimately, for a character to experience believable change, they must struggle through and survive an Odyssey. Their current status needs to be challenged and questioned, and they must allow their experiences to shift their beliefs or actions toward change. 

In short stories, there often just isn’t time for such a long journey. My copy of The Odyssey stands a solid 560 pages thick. But I’d argue that Lydia Davis pulls off a character change in her 1000 word flash fiction tale. In fact, I’d argue she went into it specifically to test the assumption that character arcs are impossible in flash fiction. All of her decisions, narratively and stylistically, limit her space and push her toward focusing on character change. 

Stylistically, she keeps her sentences short, even clipped at times. This forces her to always push forward, digging deeper into her character. She also chose first person, which allows you to trim significant framing and description, and allows an almost-exclusively internal story to feel much more natural. The “telling” nature of the story allows for an insane amount of compression, and allows the narrator to struggle with her own actions. 

Narratively, almost all of the actual story has happened in the past. The character thinks about her typical treatment of her son, and struggles through the why. And it’s important to note that Davis makes this struggle feel very concrete, very real, by including specific real-world details about the plants, the dog, her son, etc. She tires to explain her (brutish?) actions one way, then corrects herself, then tries another way. She examines other specimens, too, in trying to puzzle through her motivations. The narrator’s struggle with this moral issue is visceral to the point that you can feel the tension building. It’s the details that do that. 

The last 2 elements I’ll mention are perhaps the most important moments in the story: the beginning and the end. 

1. The beginning includes an inciting incident, in lifting the old dictionary carefully from its case. With its detailed description and present-day time, this is easily the largest moment of external conflict in the story, and that’s important. It gives this journey a real-world catalyst and a touchstone to return to so that it never rambles too far. It also really sets the reader in-scene in a compelling way. But also, this beginning ends with a specific intention in mind: the character asks herself WHY (about 225 words in). This gives the story it’s shape and sets up our expectations that, in the end, the narrator will answer this question somehow. 

2. In the end, the question is answered and the narrator has acknowledged, to some level, her failure. She goes on, as a follow through, a third act of sorts, to reaffirm the ways in which she treats the old dictionary with care and, through implication, the ways in which she will treat her son better: “I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” 

This ending drives home the character change and is perhaps the most moving part of the entire tale. 

Finally: 

While I realize these methods might not be useable in every story, there are lessons to be taken from it none the less. For one, maybe in a 5000 word story, a writer could deliberately set aside 1000 words for character change, and that these words would be distinctly internal and focused, but spread out throughout the tale. 

Also, there is a lesson in the directness with which the narrator handles her character change. To save space, it may be necessary to “tell” as much of the change as possible, to forgo “showing” some things you might have in favor of a different goal. It’s important to note, also, that so much of this story works through implication, and that is, to me at least, an interesting form of compression, requiring a deft hand. 

What do you think? Does a short story occur to you that shows a compelling (and complete) change of character? Are there other ways of compressing a character arc to fit into 5000 words or less?

Characterization with Sofia Samatar

Written by  mglyde in 

BASFF SAMATAR forestClicking the illustration to the left will take you to “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in the Mar. 2014 issue of Lightspeed. Clicking the cover will take you to the amazon page for JJA’s first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is where I read the story. 

I highly recommend the Best American. Quite a few of the stories were excellent. 

The Challenge:

Writing compelling characters can be majorly tough. Especially in short fiction, how do you find the room to really bring the character to life while also advancing a plot in some reasonable fashion? 

In a lot of stories, the answer seems to be to shovel exposition at the reader: tell us their whole life story, and pray it feels relevant. Or describe the character in minute detail, or give one key piece of backstory and hope it serves to flesh out the character so that we buy in. 

But those methods never really appealed to me. The former bores. The latter strikes me as reductive. Both hammer the pace until it completely gives in. 

So what’s a writer to do?

The Story:

There’s a lot to this story. A LOT. So much worth looking at. For one, it handles a lot of exposition in a complex way and makes it interesting. Also, it reads so smoothly, despite having really complex syntax and a musical prose quality. 

Also, twisty. At first its seems like this is set in a camp for wayward teens (it isn’t) in a world exactly like ours (it’s not) and that the girls are beginning a journey to heal emotionally and will ultimately lead fulfilling lives (nope). 

But the thing I wanted to talk about most, I found, was characterization.

We are introduced to a bunch of characters and they all felt so physically and emotionally separate and that fascinated me. 

The Solution:

In this story, Samatar seems to use 3 techniques to characterize. Firstly, the “expositional” type I mentioned earlier, although it is used just for one character and has a very gentle touch. Secondly, she offers precise and vivid descriptions of characters, usually invigorated with mood and voice–these are also used sparingly and are provided in sharp, short bursts. Not every character gets these treatments. 

Most of the characters, especially the campers, are characterized in a third way that I would call “reactionary.” 

Perhaps obviously, what I mean by this is that we get a huge glimpse into the characters simply in how they react to a core element of the story: puke. Okay, to spoil the first scene for you a tad: Cee jams a toothbrush down her throat to force herself to puke. Her friends watch on, and Cee encourages them to join her–she offers them her reasoning, although it’s suspect. 

Here are the reactions we get from the characters:

  1. Elle: At first says “Oh my God, that is disgusting.” But then she forces herself to puke “all of the sudden” (and with uncommon skill) in the sink beside Cee.
  2. Kate: “We have to stop her!” She grabs Cee and pulls her into a stall, frantically switching between “help me you guys!” and “Ew, ew, ew.”
  3. Max: “She’d believe anything”–Max responds at first with curiosity, and then with disbelief and disgust, screaming. Eventually, while trying to help Kate end this insanity, she gets so disgusted that she also pukes.
  4. Tisha (the narrator): The story is in first person, so we get a lot of her reaction. The key thing is “God, Cee. You were such an idiot.” But also, she starts laughing, apparently because she’s dizzy and afraid she’ll puke too. Then, of course, she gets so disgusted that she involuntarily pukes.
  5. Cee: When Elle begins puking, she nods her approval and says, “Good job, Elle!”
  6. 5 or 6 “other girls”: Many of these girls laugh at Katie’s antics trying to pull Cee into a stall, and say various things such as “Are you nuts?” and “Oh my God” and clutched each other. 

This isn’t the only episode of reactionary characterization we get in the story, but this one I think is the most useful and deals with more of the characters than the handful of others. 

Do you, reading this out of context, get as powerful a sense of these characters as I did? 

Two things that I think make this really genius-level material: 

  1. It’s puke. Even though the world she’s building is a little strange, just about any reader knows how they feel about puke and will probably have a visceral reaction. So this scene, these reactions, create a range that we can place our own reactions in. It’s a perfect barometer that allows us to compare ourselves to the other characters, almost getting to know them through analogy. 
  2. The “5 or 6 other girls” shows us what “normal” is in this world, which may be up for debate. It gives us a sort of control group to which we can gauge our own reactions and the reactions of the other characters. How does Max’s reaction reveal her idiosyncratic personality compared with the vaguer reactions of the other characters?

Finally:

One way to characterize (even in a strange world) is to create an event that readers can understand and allow the central characters to have specific reactions to them across a wide range. Spend time brainstorming a list of possible reactions.

But also, especially if the situation is strange, or the world is different than ours, make sure there is a control group that can show us “normal.”

Not only does this allow us to understand the characters better, it can allow us to engage further with the story, because we have to place ourselves on the scale. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? If  you have any other strong examples of reactionary characterization, I’d love to hear about them. 

Evoking characters with Julia Elliott

Written by  mglyde in 

the wildsToday I’ll be referring to multiple stories, none of which are available for free online, unfortunately. That said, to anyone who likes genre-bending awesomeness, I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Wilds by Julia Elliot, a short story collection that is mostly excellent (although it has its ups and downs). These stories stretch a wide range from science fiction to fantasy to realism all in this great style that is composed mostly of short sentences while still maintaining a kind of poetry. (Clicking on the photo will take you to the Tin House page for the book.) As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Southern Gothic is one of my great fictional loves because even when it’s courting realism, it feels so fantastic. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor,  Lewis Nordan, and now Julia Elliot. To me, one of the best things about the genre, and one of the few things all the above writers have in common, is a thick and chaotic sense of characters as full people. The characters in The Wilds do just that by presenting us with conflicted, flawed, and zaney characters who still come across as real human beings. She really seems to capture the essences of  her characters and make them pop off the page. 

How in the world does she do that? It really leaves me speechless. 

The Story:

Lacking the discipline of being able to choose a single story, and hoping a wide breadth will be helpful, I’d like to toss a handful of quotes in your direction. These quotes are descriptive moments for three specific characters from three stories of the collection. 

From “Rapture” — Meemaw: “There she was, the infamous Meemaw, a scrunched piece of a woman in a tangerine pantsuit of stretch polyester, a gleaming black brooch pinned among the ruffles of her lime blouse. She sported a Washingtonian cap of white hair, which gave her tobacco-cured face a stately quality. A few grey whiskers twitched around her fuchsia lips as she smiled.” (18)
VS. 
“Her small frame shook. She reached into the pocket of her housecoat and pulled out a penny candy, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. She frowned as though butterscotch were bile.” (29)

From “Feral” — Dr. Vilkas (the de-domestication expert): “He wore army fatigues. He shot his own footage with a digital Minicam. Half artist, half scientist, he looked a little wild himself, peering through unkempt black hair with an unnerving set of mismatched eyes–one blue, one green. Though an American citizen, Dr. Vilkas had a trace of an accent, trilling and growling, and the way he pronounced his z’s made me blush.” (79)
VS.
“He bobbed along, buoyed toward me, until, hurled at my feet, he squatted on the crumbling asphalt. Tongue lolling, he panted. Squatting, grinning, he winked at me. And then he threw his head back and howled, Adam’s apple pulsing, until the dogs joined in” (108). 

From “The Whipping” — Dad: “In one hour and forty five minutes my punishment will transpire. That’s how Dad, who sits in the kitchen flicking ash on his greasy plate of pork crumbs, always says it” (197). 
VS. 
“I look up to see my father standing on the back stoop, eating a Little Debbie Star Crunch and staring up into the trees. He looks like he wants to sprout feathers and a beak and fly up there to romp in the branches with some sexy medieval witch who’s turned herself into a hawk. A warm breeze flutters his hair, and longing oozes from him, but all he can do is chomp a huge bite out of his Star Crunch and close his eyes as he chews the sticky sweet gunk. When he opens his eyes, he catches me looking. He winces. He grins. He tries to look sober” (214). 

These are just a handful of the stellar moments in which Julia Elliot makes her characters pop off the page. 

The Solution: 

George Saunders has this anecdote about revision, which I’ve heard him talk about at least three or four times, because he uses it so often.

He begins with the sentence “Bob crossed the room to sit on the blue couch.” Then he says to himself, is it really necessary to say “to sit” when I could just say “sat”? And do we need to know that Bob crossed the room? So he transforms the sentence into “Bob sat on the blue couch.” But does it matter that the couch is blue? No, Saunders says. So: “Bob sat on the couch.” Finally, Saunders asks, do we even care about the couch? So the sentence becomes simply “Bob.”

Saunders never wraps this anecdote up in a bow–its a joke about his slow revision process more than anything else, I think, but it’s enlightening all the same in a bunch of ways. First, and most obviously, he is showing that his focus in revision is “what will the readers care about?” and second, his emphasis in revision is always with the characters. “Bob.” 

But, taking a look at the process to which he gets to “Bob,” we can see this common wisdom in writing that data–exposition and description–don’t matter.

In workshops and writing books alike, a constant emphasis is placed on not over-utlizing data and that’s a good thing, but the trouble is that under-utilizing data can leave your story flat and lifeless. “Bob crossed the room to sit on the blue couch” is a rather plain sentence and it feels unimportant, but what if it the blueness of the couch was important in the greater context of the story? And what does the sentence “Bob” do to move the story forward or tell us anything about the character?

I imagine, with a more nuanced sentence, that Saunder’s anecdote would be hard to repeat. Even if we can cut words from the description of Meemaw above, would it empower the story the way the current quote does? Here it is cut down to just the necessary pieces:

“There was Meemaw in a pantsuit, a brooch pinned on her blouse. She sported hair, which gave her face a quality. Whiskers twitched around her lips as she smiled.”

Compared to the original quote, this new sentence is vague. It fails to paint a picture of the grandma physically. It fails to evoke her, and everything that the main character feels about her: hints of fear and admiration and respect and mystery. All of that has drained from the sentence, simply through the removal of the adjectives. So how does Elliott manage to evoke her characters so successfully?

I think there are a few parts to this. 

  1. The narrator of the tale is never evoked like this–in fact it is the protagonist/narrator who evokes the other characters. It all feels natural in the voice of the narrator. Her voice romanticizes these other characters through their strange involvement in this moment of her life. For instance, the Dad in “The Whipping” is described in great detail multiple times, yet it feels natural because of the state of anxiety the main character is in, because she knows that in two hours she will be punished. 
  2.  All of the characters are granted lovingly strange details. A “Washingtonian cap of white hair,” and “mismatched eyes–one blue, one green,” and “eating a Little Debbie Star Crunch and staring up into the trees” all are these wonderful images that clue you in to the fact that Elliott can really picture these characters, and that these are moments when she is letting us inside her mind and deep into the story. 
  3. Elliott says in interviews that she used to write really purple prose, and she credits the control of that impulse with her success as a writer. And in much of her stories that is true, but she has these moments in the story where she allows a little excess to show us a character, fully drawn, in their natural habitat. Not just once, usually not even just twice, but multiple times in the story, she will allow the reader to view one of her strange characters from different angles and in different situations. These are moments of exposition and adjective-heavy description that allow us a real glimpse into her stories and, without them, I think the stories would be cardboard-dry. 

Finally: 

Here’s how she reveals character to us: She sees them clearly, knows her POV and she allows herself a moment of data-dropping. 

Writing is a constant balancing act. Control the overuse of exposition and description, but also control the impulse to gut your story until you’ve laid it bare and flat.

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read. 

Coding Gender with Paul Tremblay

Written by  mglyde in 

Tremblay Bourbon YBW1

Welcome to the first installment of my new weekly blog series on what my readings this week have taught me about writing. Generally speaking, I’ll be sticking to the same format every week but will make changes as you suggest them (either in the comments below or through the “Contact” form). As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s always advisable to read the story first, for context. 

This week’s story is available for free by clicking the Bourbon Penn Issue 8 cover to the above. If you read the first 6 paragraphs or so it will add a lot of context to this post, but it will also suck you in, I’m sure. 

The Challenge:

Writing a gender that differs from your own is an uphill battle from the start.

As soon as a reader picks up your story, they’ll note the gender your name seems to indicate, and it colors their reading of your story. I’m a writer who often chooses to write from a female POV, and so my college workshops often questioned the voice of my narrator–they’d tell me that I needed to work on making the voice of my character “girlier” as if there is some easily definable and generalize-able difference in the way other-gendered people would narrate a story.

Dutiful workshop student as I was, I started going down the hole of research on the Birds and the Bees. 

Don’t go down that hole. It’s riddled with bad, even offensive advice. Instead, read a story. 


The Story: 

An excellent recent example of a writer narrating from another gender’s POV is Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” which was published in Bourbon Penn and went on to be chosen by Laird Barron for Year’s Best Weird Fiction V1.

First time I read this story, it blew me away. The speculative element is in the background but does an amazing job of complementing the foregrounded “mundane” drama of a drug-addicted mother trying to raise her daughter, who she no longer has custody of. It’s a first person story written in the rambling style that is typical of first person narratives from characters who are struggling with addiction, but the flow of the prose is undeniably well controlled and the two story-lines (speculative and non speculative) come crashing together at just the right time. 

Also, the story is short. In Year’s Best Weird Fiction it is only 6 pages long. 

Needless to say, I love this story. An additional item of note: when I went back to read the story again, just for fun, I had somehow erased from my mind that the author was a man. While I never have before used the “Not convinced by the female voice” line when critiquing a story, I’ve also never been so convinced by a character’s voice that I switched the gender of the author to match. So I needed to know why. 


The Solution: 

Here’s the thing about Tremblay’s narrator: she does so many things that are typically seen as masculine. She swears and breaks things and clomps around in boots. Her thoughts often run violent. She is not a girly girl. To kidnap her daughter, she pulls a big ol’ knife on her mother’s boyfriend.

Also this author does not have the luxury of simply calling the character a “she” because it’s in first person. For the first 2 paragraphs, we have no clue of her gender. 

Still, Tremblay has obviously put a lot of work into convincing us of her gender, especially in the first scene, where there are 5 different clues. In the middle scene, we get 0 reminders of the character’s Gender, and in the final scene we get 3. They are of 3 kinds:

Direct Gender Coding: These come from the narrator herself and appear to work best when hidden in the character’s voice. They should be simple, and not overly clever. 

  1. “I never signed up to be their bogeywoman.” (Paragraph 6)
  2. “You sing it, girl.”  (Paragraph 31)
  3. “So something a mom would say.” (Paragraph 62)
  4. “Your Mom’s here.” (Final Paragraph)

Indirect Gender Coding: These come from outside the narration in some way. Other sources, such as other characters and one news story, can be incredibly convincing in coding gender. These are often more subtle and complex, and definitely less tied in to the narrator’s voice. This part includes the way other characters treat your narrator. 

  1. “The officer said the police don’t know why the mother headed south.” (Paragraph 3, first indication of gender) 
  2. “She’ll ask me questions the whole time about boyfriends and having kids.” (Paragraph 10)
  3. “Mrs. Ewing always used to say that I should smile more because I was so pretty.” (Paragraph 59, “pretty” being an adjective Mrs. Ewing would only use for girls)

Coding with Mannerisms and Thoughts: Probably the most challenging but also most convincing form of gender coding, the first of these is what really sold me on the gender, I think. 

  1. “When Brian sees it’s me dragging that bag of oranges over the scanner, me wondering which orange Julie will eat, sees it’s me asking if he has a Big Y rewards card, and I ask it smiling and snapping my gum, daring him to say something, anything, he can barely look me in the eye. (Paragraph 5, Note how the action of “snapping my gum” is buried in this sentence. It avoid attracting attention by being in the middle of a long sentence in a long paragraph, but a reader registers it subconsciously. A perfectly executed move.)
  2. “He was a quack who spent most of our sessions trying to look down my shirt, but I think he was right about breaking out of patterns.” (Paragraph 6. See the specificity of this concern? It’s not something that a male patient would usually be worried about.)

The Danger: 

It’s of course coding with mannerisms and thoughts that is the most convincing of the bunch. On their own, these codes are so subtle as to be meaningless (because a man can snap his gum, for instance), but when paired with the direct and indirect coding they can be powerful. Best when they match the character’s voice and are evocative.

Put a lot of time into thinking of a specific action that can evoke your character and avoid easy choices that play into stereotypes and that won’t do nearly as much work (men play football, girls brush their hair, etc).

Finally:

In this story, Tremblay creates a convincing female POV without resorting to gender norms by bringing to life a complex character that often crosses lines that traditionally separate the genders. It’s his use of a varied system of clues that allows him to really nail this POV.

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read.