Plot, Character and Me
Suggestions for Putting It Together
The first element in the writing process is the desire to write. For me it began in high school in a mysterious way, for every time I began to read a piece of fiction I heard a voice inside saying, I can do this. I know I can do this… What made that so mysterious wasn’t only that I heard a voice in my head, but that everything in my world said, “Oh no, no you can’t. No, no...”
As a child I read painfully slowly, needing to hear the words in my head before I could comprehend their syntax. I might read an entire paragraph or a whole page before realizing I hadn’t absorbed any of it then stop, go back and start all over until I got it.
Of all the aspects of education, reading is the one necessity that pervades everything. If you can’t read well, you will have problems with virtually everything else in school. I could just barely keep up, was placed with groups considered less gifted or less enthused, tagged as lazy or stupid or both by fellow teachers and family.
That was what made it so odd later on finding myself convinced that I could do what some of the finest writers who ever lived could do, people like Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, Flannery O’Conner, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce. These and many others were like gods and heroes to me the way they could take a stream of words and create not only images in my brain but sensations all through me – sadness, happiness, longing, contempt.
At first it was a lonely place to find myself in, as the only person wanting me to be a writer was…me. And the few times I mentioned such a desire it was scoffed at as just another day dream or a plot to avoid the realities of an already failed life, one with only drudgery ahead.
But I didn’t just read stories I melted into them as if the pages formed themselves into landscapes or moonscapes or lovescapes. There I was no longer trapped among dots and words and grammatical strictures but cruising along the narrow, wet and glistening streets of Dublin or skulking through the forests of New England or soaring the Highlands of Scotland. There were people there, real people and they didn’t mind me. They made no judgements, drew no conclusions. I was just there, helping it all to come alive. And it wasn’t lonely it was mysterious and filled with wonder.
But the love of reading is one thing, thinking about becoming a writer, wanting to devote one’s entire life to it is something else entirely. To create stories about people, animals, conflagrations, human desires, hardships, acts of evil or kindness, is a big leap for someone whose only conviction up to that point is that they are a failure – a fifteen-year-old…failure. But then sometimes the best thing to do is stop thinking and just do it; just sit down and write every day, every single day. And that’s what I did. Or at least that was what I did after disentangling myself from debilitating emotional anchor chains and dead weight. And as I grew older and saw the world in all its horror and all its glory and came to know the poignancy of life I began to consult those old gods and heroes of mine less as tour guides to magical places; but more as mentors so that I might learn the art of story-telling so to show others what I was seeing.
And not to imitate but simply to learn how they “pull it off”; how those I regard as the great writers from all ages do it – fashion stories in a way that captures the human imagination long enough to transmit an underlying meaning, a lesson, or even something humorous, lighthearted, uplifting, ironic.
To accomplish a completed story, I first must acquire a subject that will work, that has legs, one that will seem to take on a life of its own; a combination of events and personalities that have, in the course time, become deeply embedded in my psyche; events and personalities so striking so captivating as to “rattle around” in my brain sometimes for decades. People, places, events which have, for example, destroyed my future plans; or which contain within them elements of great beauty in the midst of some grinding horror or terror; or debilitating moral dilemmas such as killing people during a war I knew to be unjust; being raised in an environment dominated by a mini-culture of love-hate relationships. Contrasts! That’s what works for me.
To spend my time writing a story, one that might take as long as ten or more years, I must be the first reader, the first to be engaged, captivated as if miraculously. For me, a story succeeds or takes on a life of its own, when it is charged by contrasting, and conflicting elements, contrasting characters, contrasting moral stances within and among characters. Such an atmosphere fosters a lifelike plot, enlivening it with twists and turns in a manner which may at first seem completely illogical, yet ultimately work out in a way totally believable because it all emanates from the real world, it is honest. That doesn’t mean it won’t flop. There is no accounting for taste. But an honest, well-crafted story will not go away.
Fictional characters are things, tools, composites of ideas They carry a story on their backs. It can help to begin with a real person but only as an initial point of reference. Then trust your own imagination to provide stunning uniquenesses. Let them go, as if they really are alive, while keeping them on a leash, a leash of logic, so as not to spoil the overall plan. In letting them go, characters can push a story into unexpected places but they can go too far. They are things, tools. Play god. Trust your instincts without creating a loose cannon. Characters mold the environment of believability. Strive for uniqueness. Avoid stereotyping. A central fictional character must never be a type. Even the less developed characters must always appear as if they were fashioned by a creator who had, at their disposal, an infinite array of uniquenesses. Never to describe a character in words or by checklists. That is the quickest way to disengage a reader.
Virtually all plots can be reduced to a tiny number of types.
But characters no, not if the writer works. This is where a story finds its way into the world as if it all really happened, as if they were historical figures – when they are so well fashioned as to touch us, reach up out of the harshness of print and touch our hearts.
Who could ever forget Charles Dickens’ Scrooge and Cratchit, Boris Pasternak’s Strelnikov and Larisa, Emily Brontë’s Kathy and Heathcliff, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde?
Ronald J. Wichers
What nameless thing sustains us? Religion? What does it mean to be religious? And what sort of woman would faithfully minister to the needs of a dying husband, a man who has neglected her and betrayed her? A woman with no ties to any religious tradition.
And how many among us would remain loyal to a nation embroiled in a war that many believe should never have been allowed to happen—a conflict in which the mightiest nation on earth waged war on one of the very poorest?
And what is faith? Is it only rote learning of prayers and hymns, moral laws and historical facts? Or is it something that only a few among us are given—a seeking of something, of someone that resides in the heart of all things?
Take the journey through The Palisades and wonder.