Characterization, Editing, Writing

The Story and the Story

There’s a great scene in The Sopranos where Christopher Moltisanti is explaining the idea of the character arc to fellow gangster and partner in crime, Paulie Gaultieri.Christopher says, “You ever feel like nothin’ good was ever going to happen to you?”  To which Paulie, in his infinite wisdom, replies, “Yeah. And nothin’ did. So what? I’m alive, I’m survivin'”  This, in a nutshell, could explain the current draft of my novel.  A lot of bad shit happens and the main character has to get from point A to point B without, I don’t know, being eaten by a giant snake, being mindfucked by a wayward magister of the Golden Dawn or imprisoned by a dark faerie lord.  So what?  Elizabeth is alive at the end.  Isn’t that enough?  As Christopher Moltisanti says, no, indeed it is not.  In a flash of introspection, he tells Paulie that for him, life just isn’t about survival, saying to his fellow mafioso how “it says in these movie writing books that every character has an arc…Like everybody starts out somewheres. and they do something, something gets done to them and it changes their life. That’s called an arc. Where’s my arc?”

Lately, my characters have been asking this question a lot of me.  Writing those first couple of drafts huddled before my laptop in the midst of the polar vortex, I didn’t care about anything besides just puking up the story onto a blank word document.  I had no idea where the plot was going or how things were going to end, but in a feverish haze I let the words lead  me.  I didn’t care if I told instead of showed, I didn’t bother with logic, details, or world building.  If something seemed ridiculous (and in fact, most of the time, it all seemed ridiculous. I still hesitate in public to say I’m writing a book about faeries. Maybe after my third book, I can declare this with pride, but for now let’s just keep the matter among friends, kay?  kay.), I just kept going.  I didn’t look back.  And in the end, I realized.  Hey, there might be a story here, after all.

But that’s just it.  I wrote one story.  One.  The thing I’m learning about novels is that you actually have to write several stories until they all blend together like those old transparency documents that elementary school teachers would layer on and layer over the hot bulb of the projector to teach us about diagramming sentences or some shit.  The nouns are purple.  One slide.  The adjectives are yellow.  Another slide.  And so on and so on until a psychedelic phantasmagoria of language swam across the tattered pull down screen.  The story I’m writing now, the second story, is the emotional story of my characters.  It’s the story beneath the story.  Sure, yes, we all need to stop these baddies from taking over the world and all that, but beneath that there is something deeper that our characters want.  And this, this, is what I’ve been thinking about a lot.

At the Madison Writer’s Conference I attended last Saturday, I heard Marilyn Atlas talk a lot about what characters want vs. what characters need.  My character wants to stay alive, she wants to save the world, and in a sense she just wants what Paulie wants–to survive.  But novels are not just about kicking ass for 300 pages and then calling it a day with a glass of wine and The Walking Dead reruns,  Every heroine wants to save the world, save herself, save someone else.  This is  pretty standard fare, and as Paulie says, so what?  What she needs springs from something much deeper, what Atlas calls “the wound.”    For Elizabeth, abandoned by her mother, estranged by her distant father, it is the need to belong and the need to feel comfortable with who she is and what she has become.  It’s a deeper story, one that, in this revision, has to be layered like a palimpsest upon all the oil-slick goblin blood she slips through on her way to becoming a strong woman who can stand on her own.

What i think is the most difficult about all this is having to ask, like Christopher, what is my arc?  Only through understanding how the events of our lives have shaped us emotionally, can we begin to write real, three-dimensional characters.  In 2003, my dear friend Megan picked me up from the airport after I came back from Christmas break.  We went out and had tacos, enjoyed some light chit-chat, and then, I suppose not able to hold it in any longer, she dropped the bomb.  My advisor had passed away suddenly from complications after a routine heart surgery.  Flagstaff was what they call a “dark city,” meaning that the city forbid street lamps and other sorts of light pollution, but I remember sitting in that car and feeling a darkness, a darkness deeper than the high desert at 9 pm on a Thursday,  wrap around me like a black cloak, the velvet fabric not letting go for days, weeks, months.  Years.  It choked me, suffocated me. I couldn’t even find the air to cry.  Sometimes when my toddler bangs his head, he takes in a huge breath, and my husband and I will look at each other as we go to him and count down to the scream, ten, nine, eight…But this was like the inhalation on and on forever.  There was no catching my breath.  No scream.  Dr. Short had been more than my advisor.  He was my friend, a father-figure, a guide, a wizard.  He was Dumbledore and Gandalf and Dr. Xavier all rolled into one human being.  And he was infinitely kind even when he was telling me that he questioned my capacity to write complete sentences in something akin to the English language.  Writing this novel has forced me to confront his death in a way that I never really had to examine before, to consider the arc of my life and how Dr. Short’s death propelled me into my adult life.  Maybe all this time, I was doing a little more than surviving after all.

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