Strange Animals 10feb2019: Concept/Character
I’ve missed a couple of these—one because I was on break for a friend’s wedding, and the other because I was working overtime so that I could go on another break (it’s been fun, I won’t lie, but at this point I kinda miss being home for a decent-ish period, and I’ve taken to chasing random stray cats because I miss my little dork back home). I know I said I wanted to get out 52 of these this year, but I’m okay with hitting 50 if it comes to that. Life is more important, and, in any case, I’ll try and make it up down the line. No one died, and it’s good to have perspective on these things.
This week is a bit of a download, so I can’t promise coherence. I’m writing this sitting on a beach in Goa after three days of lying in the sun, so excuse me if I read a bit touched.
I’ve talked before on this newsletter how, over the last couple of years, I started writing fiction again, and my priorities have changed significantly. But I don’t believe I’ve gone into specifics, and those are relevant to my future as a writer, since I’m at a point where I’ll be putting out work fairly soon.
In most of my published work so far, I have been heavily concerned with concepts. I like coming up with ideas that, to me, feel new, and I like exploring the ramifications of those. While obviously characterisation plays a part in that, it wasn’t a big priority. This has also been the kind of writing I enjoyed reading throughout my life—heavy on ideas and formal experimentation, and maybe even concerned about human nature, but mostly shying away from emotional intensity. The Gray tradition, as Lance Parkin and Andrew Hickey elucidated it.
But I’ve always struggled to write that way, and while I’d like to, I don’t think I have the kind of facility in coming up with ideas that working like that needs. I’m not bad at generating strange ideas that sound cool, but it’s a lot more complicated making sure they’re about something. And this sort of writing is difficult to plot for, because, a lot of the time, you can’t rely on internal logic to get you from beginning to end. That’s not quite how these things work.
On the other hand, emotion- and character-based storytelling is easier to map out, because you’re working from core desires of your characters, and your storytelling decisions are based on how they affect those characters and what they say about them. But this is, to me, incredibly difficult to write, in a very different way from the kind of writing I mentioned earlier, because it requires you to, as Susan Sontag (debatably) put it, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
And I’ve always found that scary. In my writing, formal trickery and allusive writing has been only partly a matter of active interest (I mean, I do genuinely enjoy that stuff). The other part is just that it’s uncomfortable to have to feel things and then write them down honestly on the page. Hell, it’s embarrassing, because if people don’t like it, you might feel stupid for having been honest.
I said earlier that characterisation wasn’t a big priority for me in my published work—the keyword there is ‘published’. There was always work I intended to create that was much more personal, which was, for that very reason, difficult to actually sit down and write. So it was easy to tell myself that that sort of writing didn’t really matter anyway.
But there’s only so far I could take writing if I was actively trying to avoid caring about it. I was stuck in a strange place where I loved writing, but I was unable to reveal myself in my writing. This was very directly related to why I quit writing seven years ago.
Out this week with my lettering is These Savage Shores #3 from Vault Comics, with Ram V, Sumit Kumar and Vittorio Astone. Last week saw the release of the collected volume of Deep Roots, from the same publisher, with Dan Watters, Val Rodrigues and Tríona Farrell.
When I eventually got back to writing (I’ve written before about the ‘why’ of that), it took me a long time and many discarded comic scripts to figure out what worked and what didn’t. It wasn’t a linear path, so there wasn’t one moment of realisation, but I did figure it out—the good ones all had a piece of my heart, something that mattered to me.
And because epiphanies are not a real thing, this didn’t mean it was easy figuring out how to actually write something like that. My recently published short story ‘Jukebox’ is a good example. It falls between my two modes in an uneasy way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people didn’t like it much. But it’s helped me navigate how this works. It’s valuable precisely because it lets me examine the things about my old mode that I want to retain, and the ones that were just a smokescreen so I could avoid having to feel stuff while writing.
I published a story on this newsletter last year, called . Plotwise, it’s a man looking at an old photograph. Formally, it’s unusual in that it draws temporal connections from a single moment in time to points before and after it in a non-linear manner. But both these elements serve to build emotional connections between people. Or at least, that’s the hope.
I wrote an even shorter story ages ago that uses the same setup and even the same formal device, but with the emotional component kept at a distance:
The photograph depicts a moment in time arbitrarily determined without the consent of any of those involved. The closest anyone got to controlling it was when the photographer clicked the picture, but the lag between the synaptic flash in the photographer’s brain and the flash of the camera when the shutter fell was too long to be instantaneous. The wrong instant was captured.
A hand holds the photograph. Mercury light falls on the surface, flowing over faces, between the shadows, bending around the fingers gripping the picture. The photograph exists in two dimensions. Any attributed depth is imaginary. The hand holds it in indeterminate three-dimensional space. For the eyes in the photograph, there is only above.
In the grip of the hand, tendrils of theory emanate from the image and grasp memories from its past and future. Some of them encircle possibilities and collapse them into perceived facts, others slither and move on.
The eyes in the photograph see a transparent mutating circle grow larger and larger as it approaches. With a splotch, vision is distorted, then returns to normal as the drop of water slides away.
The hand shakes the rainwater off the photograph and inserts it in a coat pocket for protection. The eyes now gaze into darkness. They will not exist until they are observed again. Only a thin layer of chemicals clinging to memories of long-ago light stand between them and complete oblivion. Results of a mistaken moment, staring into the void in silent appeal.
I won’t try and dictate to you whether one works and the other doesn’t, but the more recent one is what I want to be doing—using words and pictures to tackle interesting emotions, and things that make people interesting to me, rather than just poke around at ideas.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this, but writing feels like it matters once again, and I’m good with that for now.
Here’s a tv show that seems to working with many of the same concerns I’ve been thinking about for the last little while. Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville’s Netflix series Maniac, starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.
It’s published on Netflix, so one would think bingeing might be the ideal mode of consumption for this series, but I’d argue that it works better as a serial—I watched it one episode a week, chewing over my experience of each episode and how it related to all the previous ones before moving on to the next one.
It’s ostensibly a chronologically linear show, set in a formally inventive world cobbled together from other media as quite a few tv shows these days seem to be (Legion and Atlanta, off the top of my head) but the way it’s cut keeps asking you to make thematic connections with what the characters are going through.
It’s interesting to me considering what I was saying about character, because that’s the one arena where it doesn’t quite succeed, given that the entire concept of the show is to sublimate character emotions via hallucinatory media. But there’s the obfuscation right there—by portraying the characters’ drives through the mise-en-scène, the show creates a distance between the emotions and their actual depiction.
The writing keeps fighting it, trying to be more honest than its structure will let it, but whether or not it’s a winning battle, it’s genuinely fascinating to watch the struggle.
The ending is less than magnificent, but it’s a good show whose struggles with sincerity are worth witnessing. And these are nevertheless more than made up for by the production design and the performances, which are never less than riveting.
(Addendum: Between writing and posting this, I watched Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler’s Russian Doll, also on Netflix, and it’s a great counterpoint, because it’s an sf/fantasy show that, even though it has a ‘concept’, is entirely emotionally driven and uses the concept to service the emotional drive of the show rather than undermine it. The protagonist wants to figure out the central conceit, but you as the viewer know that the explanation wouldn’t actually matter because the storytelling makes it clear that the concept is never what the show is about. Additionally, it also manages to nail the idea of reset/reboot-based storytelling with consequences in a way that The Good Place season 3 desperately tried but failed to land.)
This entry from the commonplace book is a long one, from December 2018, but it’s worth it if you enjoyed the rest of the newsletter. Comics writer Steven Grant talks about characterisation, with an appearance by fellow comics writer Louise Simonson:
I was doing a job for Weezie Jones once, a Battlestar Galactica issue if I remember right, when I asked her about characterization. I hadn’t been hanging around Marvel for that long at that point (neither had she) but I’d become puzzled by one editor or artist or fan after another talking about this writer or that’s terrific characterization. And I’d look at the comics they talked about—and I just couldn’t see it! For the most part it was certainly better than the pure vanilla characterization you saw in most DC comics of the late ’70s, where heroes were heroes because they were good and when you’re good you become a hero and villains were bad because that’s what villains are, and in Marvel comics they didn’t editorially blot out all authorial idiosyncrasies so they were more interesting, but when I looked for what, in literature classes in college, was called characterization, it just wasn’t there. At least in any broad sense. It seemed every author would seize on one little character twist, then run it on every character in their stable until became nothing more than the shtick by which that author was easily recognized. Even with the most interesting characterization, if every character in a story behaves the same, it’s not characterization.
So, at the risk of looking ignorant, I asked Weezie about it, though she’d never raved up anyone’s characterization in my presence. She took my issue of Battlestar Galactica, opened it to a certain sequence, and said, “See where this character does this in this situation, but that one does that? That’s characterization.”
Yes, it really is just that simple. Sort of.
Awhile back in this series I raised some eyebrows when I said, despite schisms imposed by generations of English teachers and literary critics, that plot and character were really the same thing. In real terms, when writing a story, they commingle to the point of inseparability, with character’s actions constantly working on the story to change the direction of the plot and the events of the plot in ways large and small constantly altering character. But in real terms we the audience never see character. Character really only exists in the author’s head.
What we see is characterization.
There’s a lot more worth reading at the link, and Grant goes into more detail about the forms characterisation takes, which are useful handles for when you’re writing something, but even this bit is quite good.
Filed under #writing and #advice.