clarentine: (cavalier)
A friend once observed, while critiquing one of my novels, that I appeared to be using one of the pair of main characters as a whipping boy. Bad stuff always fell worse on the one character, not the other, though the other is the one who instigated the situation. The other, in fact, often was being forced to watch as a punishment; the bad guys explicitly damaged the one to hurt the other. Which called into question why the whipping boy was there at all - what was their purpose, aside from soaking up punishment I subconsciously did not want to inflict on my chosen character? A very good question.

(An excellent critique overall, and a good friend for being willing to pull no punches. I needed to hear that.)

In revising the current novel, Switchback, it occurs to me that I'm still exploring the dynamic between two main characters, one of which inevitably becomes my favorite by the end of the first draft. I'll probably always be re-learning the lesson of that earlier critique, I'm afraid - I've done it again here, trapping the secondary protagonist and leaving the primary character to dig him out - but I am at least aware of what I've set up (and why robbing that character of agency is not a good thing for either character or story).

So here I am, on rewrite, considering that secondary protag. I can't do the obvious thing and combine the two characters, not in this story; it needs to remain a story about two brothers. What I can do, though, is build in goals for that secondary character. What is being trapped doing to him and his goals?

What I can't do is consider the scene solely from the standpoint of how it affects my primary character.

I'm going to go make some pound cake and think on that.
clarentine: (Default)
Further on a conversation between [ profile] mnfaure and myself:

Quite ironically, while eating dinner I was reading a collection of Roger Zelazny's short stories entitled Unicorn Variations and stumbled upon an essay he'd written about writing reflexes developed over a long career. The essay was prompted by his reading of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, within which Hemingway observed that he deliberately omitted portions of what he knew of a story, on the theory that omitting what he knew was there would make the story stronger and "make people feel something more than they understood."

Zelazny's subsequent examination of his own writing habits led him to conclude, in part, that he himself tended to the opposite habit - e.g., he often included "gratuitous characterization" of the secondary characters as a means of enriching the story and achieving the same sort of effect Hemingway claimed--making readers feel more than they actually understood by grounding the story in a larger reality.

I've been thinking about all of this recently (following up on a seed perhaps planted long ago by my first reading of this particular essay? Hard to tell) in the light of my current bugaboo. In Break, I am attempting consciously to assemble a more human-scale plot with a backdrop of the World At Risk, where the larger events stay in the background. At the moment, I think it's working, but we'll have to wait for The End to be certain. One of the things I realized about this sort of plot is that the larger reality must be there, present if not front-and-center. Characters are still driven by larger events, even if what I'm showing is how their lives are changed by several-levels-removed reactions to those events.

This relates back to Zelazny's notation of "gratuitous characterization." I like to think that my habit of endowing secondary characters with real lives and cares and concerns is part of the strength of my stories, not at all a throwaway gesture. Those characters certainly help ground the reader in the story's reality and add layers that eventually support the bigger backdrop of the stories without me having to engage with it directly. A feature, if you will, not a bug. *g*

Does this habit "make people feel something more than they understood?" I hope I get the chance to find out!


*The title of the essay is The parts that are only glimpsed: Three reflexes, should you find yourself wanting to look it up. I have arrows and brackets all over my copy. *g*
clarentine: (Default)
A New York Magazine article (, linked to recently on a friend's blog) included the following passage: "For women in clubby, male-dominated industries, like banking and consulting, the objective is often to appear more masculine (and ward off the suspicion that you will someday procreate and thus become professionally unviable). “They cultivate a hard edge, pressing to be more masculine in their manner and the way they deal with people,” the management consultant told me."

Am I alone in objecting to the either-or nature of this behavioral equation? I fear it may be pure idealism on my part to wish we ("we") would stop defining behavior in such a polarizing manner. I would like very much for people to stop saying, in effect, "Assertiveness is a male characteristic" and change that statement around to "Male behavior often includes assertiveness." It is inappropriate shorthand, in my opinion, to say "masculine" when you mean certain behaviors often, but not exclusively, associated with males.

Perhaps this is why so much of my fiction revolves around gender issues. (You think?)

Anyway, I had to get that thought off my chest. I doubt the issue will ever be settled--certainly not in my generation--since it is human nature not to pursue or accept change unless the status quo is actively painful, but it doesn't hurt to discuss the topic from time to time. Or even hit them over the head with it occasionally, eh?


clarentine: (Default)

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