Archive for the ‘characters’ Tag

Honest Sensitivity   1 comment

One aspect of this writing business always seems to take newly published authors by surprise. For some it’s a matter of “I never thought of that” puzzlement; for many others, it’s a serious shock to their creative impulses. What I’m talking about is this: the realization that, once you’ve published something – be it a short essay or a full-length novel – in a certain sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. To be very clear, I’m not talking about copyrights. I’m talking about the story and the reader’s experience of it. It’s your story when you write it, but it becomes their story as they read it. You no longer control the development of the story as it comes to life for readers, and how they react to the story as they read, interpret, and internalize the experience is entirely up to them.

Far more often than not, and assuming you’ve told the story at all well, readers will be on the same page with you, page after page. This is especially true of readers who already know your work. But there will be a few – and there will always be a few, for anything you publish – who have responses to the work that will puzzle you, or perhaps even shock you. “What,” you may well wonder, “brought that on?”

It’s a good question.

Reading and writing are flip sides of the literary coin. Heads you write, tails you read – which does rather strain a metaphor, but you get the idea. The coin itself consists of a lifetime of experiences, all the good and the bad; of being there and doing that, and having the essence of who and what you are shaped by these things. Reader or writer, you are that which exceeds the sum of those parts. Heads or tails, you bring all of that with you when you write and when you read. It will inform what you write, or your reactions to what you read. For some of us, meaning writers, it works both ways. Either way, it can’t be helped.

So, consider just the reader, for a moment, as seen by the writer of something that has invoked in that reader something of a negative reaction, be it distress or offense. What, indeed, brought that on? Nothing less than the sum of all those parts; those experiences that shaped the who, what, and why of the reader holding your book – or throwing it at the wall. A reader may like your work, and merely interpret it in an unexpected – or even embarrassing – way. But from time to time a scene or character touches a sore spot and triggers a stronger reaction than you intended, anything from emotional discomfort to actual anger or outrage. As a result, you might find yourself the recipient of a one-star rating and an angry rant for a review. You might even endure a public attack on your personal character. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself dealing with a snowball effect in the social media, as people sympathetic to that reader’s sensitivity respond to that person’s outrage by piling on, without bothering to read for themselves whatever it was you published. Suddenly, your work is getting all the wrong sorts of attention. And yes, I know a famous person once declared that there was no such thing as “bad publicity,” but there was no internet back then. Need I say more?

Anything you write and publish runs the risk of such a reaction, and if you want the general public to read what you’ve written, you really have no choice but to accept that risk. This isn’t to say you can’t be somewhat proactive when you write. Being slow to offend and slower still to take offense is always a fine policy. Deliberately writing something with the intent to cause hurt feelings or invoke anger in someone is difficult to excuse, and not a thing I’ve ever done. There’s rarely an excuse for trolling in any venue. But the possibility of giving offense exists nonetheless, regardless of your intentions.

So for my own part, I don’t seek the sort of reactions from readers that amount to being poked in the head with a sharp stick. And yet, for any sort of writing to be worth a damn, the reader absolutely must react to some degree to that arrangement of words. Where’s the point of balance to be found? Aside from not deliberately making that sharp stick and poking people, I’m not sure there really is one. You write with the best of intentions and hope readers see that this is the case. And you accept the possibility that not everyone will do so, as a sort of occupational hazard.

When I write, I’m guided by the belief that the story must be told honestly, and to the best of my current ability. That means that whatever the story requires to succeed, I’ll put into the most readable arrangement of words I can produce. There are lines I will not cross. For example, I won’t set down a graphic account of sexual violence. What if the story requires it? No story I ever write will require anything like that; I just don’t have that sort of imagination. For me to attempt such a scene would violate my principle of writing honestly; I would be faking it, writing something that simply does not come naturally to me. I might place such an event in the background of a character, to explain why that character behaves as he or she does. And I might hint or insinuate that a character is that sort of bastard, capable of such abuse, but you won’t witness any of his or her acts. To those who insist that such grim realities are a part of the real world from which we all must draw our inspiration and material, I like to point out that the same is true of bowel movements. But by all means feel free to define your own storytelling honesty – so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences without complaint.

There are a few other things I won’t include in a story. I won’t use the notorious “N word”, and I do my best to avoid obvious stereotypes regarding gender and race. However, as I write, I don’t work at being endlessly mindful that there are people out there who flinch easily at, for example, the use of profanity, or descriptions of characters enjoying alcoholic beverages. There is no way I could possibly write readable fiction while trying to keep my eyes open for every conceivable offense or objection that could be raised. It wouldn’t help if I did. Remember all those readers with all those wildly varying life experiences? I don’t know any of them personally. How can I possibly know about everything I should avoid for their sakes?

Whatever I write, there is almost certain to be someone who reads it and finds something objectionable. More often than not, I’ll never know about it, but I get just enough feedback of that sort to know it’s happening. So I write as well and honestly as I can, and I work within the assumption that a minority of readers will flinch at something, meaning the smaller number of readers, and not those who happen to belong to a group considered a minority.

You might take exception to something I write. Your life experiences may well leave you sensitive to one thing or another, and I just happened to put something in that story that touched the sore spot. It came too close to home, and something unpleasant was triggered. As you react, be assured it was never my intention to do so. Stories that are true to life will sometimes hold unpleasant things, for someone, whatever limits an author might embrace.

It’s like juggling eggs. No matter how good I manage to become at this writing thing, for some readers, I’m going to drop an egg or two. I didn’t mean to make that mess, but there it is.

SOME STILL HEAR THE ECHOES   Leave a comment

Musings Prompted by Rereading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1976
(Mild spoiler warning.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not a book I picked up in a timely fashion, and it was already considered a classic of modern science fiction when I first read it in the mid-1980s. The 60s and early 70s were still relatively recent history for me, then, and so I had no trouble drawing the connections between this story and the Vietnam War so many, including the author, have pointed out. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences of PTSD in a Vietnam veteran I once knew, these connections resonated more strongly than might otherwise have been the case.

The story is told from the point of view (first person) of a man conscripted to serve in an elite military force meant to defend the human species from a hostile alien life form. Contact with that other species did not go well, although the recruits are a little unclear as to how and why it went wrong. Chosen for their unusually high intelligence, they are put through a basic military training that is as brutal as it is dangerous. Mistakes and mishaps can be immediately lethal, and casualties are all too common. Their first engagement with the enemy turns out to be a battle with a largely defenseless foe, and becomes an uncontrolled massacre. The enemy responds by upping the proverbial ante with lethal consequences for humanity as the war spreads. After surviving the required tour of duty, the narrator returns to an Earth so changed by the passage of time that he and his comrades simply cannot fit in. They are used as propaganda tools and then rejected by the society they fought to protect. Unable to navigate through a strange new world, the narrator and his closest comrade and lover re-enlist. Sent on separate missions, they are lost to each other due to the same temporal displacements that put them so out of touch with the Earth. (These displacements are caused by the style of space travel employed.) The narrator becomes a man out of synch with the times in which he lives, and cannot relate to the people he now commands in any effective way. The conflict in which he and the others are trapped alternately escalates and then stalemates, and even though the plot is complicated by the sci-fi trope of the relativistic consequences of interstellar travel, it all sounds horribly familiar.

As a story in its own right, The Forever War deserves its status as a classic. It’s a powerfully human story, full of the sort of speculations and imaginings that make science fiction what it is, a genre of ideas generated by the iconic question, “What if…?” The big what if question raised by this book, it seems to me, is what if we leave the confines of this world before we learn from the mistakes we’ve made here? What might the consequences be? The potential answer presented in The Forever War is all too easy to believe.

Many of us who grew up when I did, and more to the point, those somewhat older than me who were directly caught up in the Vietnam War, see the parallels here between fiction and reality all too clearly, from the false assumptions that led to the conflict all the way through to the dislocation and rejection of the veterans of that war. The Forever War is a mirror held up to our recent history, one that reflects it all too clearly.

Rereading The Forever War for this essay, I was at first quite surprised by how well it had “aged.” It still seems so relevant, even today. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. We are a society that places little value on history, our own or others, preferring mythologized versions of the events that made us what we are today to the truth, with its blemishes and all too frequent contradictions of dearly held beliefs. Because of this we are, again as a society, very slow to learn the lessons of even the recent past. There’s an old saying, that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat that history. This is all too true, and although the bells and whistles and the power of the bombs may change, the song remains eerily familiar. It’s also said that those who do come to understand the lessons of history are doomed to watch humanity reiterate its mistakes, often feeling powerless to prevent the repeated cycles, even as they listen to the echoes of their own recent past.

The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963   Leave a comment

It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.

Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.

In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.

This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.

Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.

Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.

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