Saturday, July 21, 2012

Show and tell: Character

I'm reading a book that I could describe as the "British Kramer vs. Kramer" because (except for the fact it's broadcasting a tragic ending, you know, "I didn't know then that this was the last time we'd be happy...."-- annoying) it's hit almost every event in the film. Anyway, there's something I'm noticing that reminded me of "concreteness" and how important it is in establishing authority (by the author) and trust (in the reader).

I think (I am not sure, because the author screwed up, if you don't mind my saying so) that the intended theme is something like romance is temporary, but love is forever-- love is better/more than romance. And the way this would be set up as a dialectic, very simplified (usually we start with the -wrong- and show it's wrong):
Thesis: Romance is better than longterm love.
Antithesis: Longterm love is better than romance.
Synthesis: Longterm love has its own type of romance.

 The protagonist in this book gets dumped by his wife (for good reason-- his one-night stand) and then by his new girlfriend, and both say the same thing, "You don't really want love. You just want romance, and that doesn't last, and you're disappointed when it does."

An astute criticism, except that... there's nothing in the events or his actions that suggests that. In fact, he seems to love the whole domesticity experience, the just-being-together aspect of a long relationship, the visits-to-in-laws-and-kids'-birthday-parties as the height of excitement. Even his one-night-stand was mostly the result of getting himself into a situation where it would be embarrassing not to stay the night. His women, in fact, are the total romantics, always proclaiming high-flown desires like, "I want a man who will love me totally and only and never ever look at another woman!" "I want a white knight who will always be there and love me unconditionally and rescue me from peril!"

But they keep saying that his problem is that he wants romance and adventure and excitement, not longterm love. This could be ironic, except it isn't. There's no point in the book where he even says, "Wait a minute.That's not me at all."  So it seems pretty clear that the author had in his head the notion that the protagonist just wants romance, but also had in his head a plot where "a man learns to be a father," and never makes good on the proclamation that the man wants romance above all and must learn to value the quotidian.

It occurs to me that this deeply frustrating reading experience is showing me something about writing. As a reader, I can tell there's a disconnect between what is told and what is shown, between the author's idea of the theme, and the actual theme as played out in the events of the plot. This is a good reason to occasionally try to see your book as a reader would, of course!

Anyway, I was thinking--- if I were the one writing the book and wanted to go with that whole romance/adventure illusion problem, what I'd do is make it clearer in the beginning that the character is acting out of a need for romance. For example, this one-night-stand, which was almost an accident, and immediately regretted and no fun at all, could be set up as much more of a product of romantic longing. Rather than just some gal from work inviting him for a drink, she could be someone who embodies his secret dreams of the ideal woman, that he's been longing for, and her "choosing" him could be not just a chance thing, but the culmination of that secret desire. He could be describing her not really in physical terms but in emotional terms-- dream come true, all that. And then there's the shock of returning home and being found out, and his making excuses about true love and romantic fantasy and such, and in that case, her accusing him of wanting romance over love might ring more true.

Point is, if your theme doesn't match your book, you have to change the theme or change the book. Often this won't require a major change to get the coherence you seek. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking one event that is sticking out like a sore thumb as showing something other than the theme and refining that event to make it develop rather than contradict the theme. In this case, the problem was actually in the setup (act 1, the thesis part of the theme) which didn't show him ever acting out the "romance is best" belief.

What's your book theme, and how are you showing it developing in your scenes?



Anonymous said...

The theme can/should be decided from the beginning - but then it has to be checked at the end to ensure it meshes with the novel.
I thought I wanted "Love is more important than anything" but really have "Risking having nothing is more important than having the wrong love."
There are things more important than love. There is duty and honor, and there is protecting the children.
Love is often equated with happiness in the American mainstream, but it is not the same thing. I think that is one of the reasons The Bridges of Madison County was so successful (even though I've never understood why she made no effort to locate the guy AFTER her husband died and her children were grown). The theme was "There are things more important than love."
Love is only a start; like all obsessions, it has to be annealed by reality.
It is one of the useful things about finishing that first draft - the ability to look back and see if your theme is 1) clearly stated, and 2) proved by the story. Edit, fix, readjust - and the next draft should be a lot closer.
Thanks for the interesting question - you'd think it was obvious, but it isn't.

Anonymous said...

Second part of your question, but just as important: how do I try to show the theme?
With scenes throughout the novel where the theme is getting closer and closer, by having the main character reject a relationship at places where it would be guaranteed to be temporary, even though she has no certainty that it will ever be more. When convenience comes up against values, principles win. I personally prefer stories where relationships matter, over stories where it is assumed sexual access will eventually lead to a satisfying relationship.
The MC also feels strongly that the potential relationship shouldn't happen - for what she considers are important reasons - and chooses against the memories she could have had, which costs her dearly. Even more consequences follow her choices, leading ultimately to sacrificing her personal principles for higher ones, when children are at stake.

Edittorrent said...

ABE, that's a great transformation of theme! In fact, I can see the character sort of starting with the romantic idea that love is most important but ending up with a more nuanced understanding about its place in our value system.

That reminds me of the end of Casablanca, where it's clearly shown that no matter how important love is, saving the world is more important!