“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones” — Albert Einstein

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lifeblood of Fiction

Sitting at my laptop in the night with a glass of water at my elbow, there is movement in my peripheral vision. I glance at the source, alarmed, but the shimmering movement is only the play of moonlight on the water's surface. With each keystroke the water jiggles and though I know what it is, the ghostly shimmer fools me again and again, like the slap of the flag on my dad's flagpole in a brisk wind when I'm working in the garden. It has me looking over my shoulder, again and again. And I'm reminded of a passage from THE SOUND AND THE FURY.

If character is the life of fiction (as John Gardner says), description of time and place is the lifeblood that supports your characters along the way. Consider how William Faulkner describes water in a basin in the moonlight....

I could hear Shreve working the pump, then he came back with the basin and a round blob of twilight wobbling in it, with a yellow edge like a fading balloon, then my reflection. I dipped the rag, breaking the balloon.

Or this passage that blends the best description of twilight I've ever read with the memory of the brother who never grew up...
As I descended the light dwindled slowly, yet at the same time without altering its quality, as if I and not light were changing, decreasing, though even when the road ran into trees you could have read a newspaper. I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling like butterflies hovering a long way off. Benjamin the child of. How he used to sit before that mirror.

I just finished Ian McEwan's SOLAR, which set me to thinking about the importance of character development and how essential it is to make your readers care about your characters. Maybe this is an unfair comparison I'm about to make, but McEwan has been compared to literary giants, from Dickens to Faulkner, so my guess is that it isn't. The characters in SOLAR were as flat as failed bread and I had to force myself to keep going. Halfway through, I stopped waiting for it to get better and resigned myself to disappointment from an author who has never disappointed me before. So, even the experienced writer slips on occasion and falls into the trap of their own verbosity. Not only was the main character unlikable on a personal level, but as a scientist he seemed unmotivated, selfish, and greedy. And the only time McEwan comes close to a Faulkner description of time and place is when his Pulitzer Prize winning scientist steps out of his air conditioned car in the heat of the New Mexico desert and falls to his knees under the weight of it.

I think the main problem for me is that climate change is such a serious subject it doesn't lend itself well to the slapstick satiracal style McEwan uses to drive the novel forward. I found it hard to sympathize with this unlikable character who zips his penis in his snowsuit during a trip to the Arctic, this overweight academic who overeats before an important speech at a climate change conference and has to swallow his acid reflux as he tries to convince investors to take their money out of coal and oil and put it into solar. Who could take him seriously? This buffoon who has multiple failed marriages and countless affairs and who behaves badly at the turning point of the novel. And the multiple cast of supporting characters are equally unlikable and unmemorable. I didn't care about any of them. Characters are the life of fiction and these ones were dead in the water before the halfway point.

I think it unfortunate that one of the premier writers of our time missed an opportunity to bring solar power and all the possiblities encompassed within the miracle of photosynthesis into the mainstream conversation. Most readers won't put up with unlikable, boring characters, regardless of the subject. I would love to hear other opinions on this subject. And if any of you have read SOLAR, what'd you think?

If you can't give your readers a character to love, you'd better at least give them one to hate. Make your reader feeling something. Take Faulkner's Jason-one of the most despicable characters in the history of American literature-Jason Compson will stay with me long after I've forgotten McEwan's Michael Beard. Indifference to character is the death knell for a novel.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Interesting post, Yvonne. I think you're absolutely right. We have to care, whether it's love or hate, we must feel something or why read about them.

Jemi Fraser said...

Interesting. Indifference is not something we aim for our readers to feel. Good post.

Anthony Duce said...

I enjoyed this. I agree, the main character needs to be either liked or hated to keep my attention long enough to finish.

Belle said...

"Indifference to character is the death knell for a novel." Very true!

Liza said...

Indifference means, "toss the book aside" for me.

Wine and Words said...

WOW - The twilight quote....WOW! Incredibly beautiful, almost more so than the moment itself.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I just couldn't get over how uninteresting these people were, and from a master like McEwan.

Thanks a lot. I'm anxious to hear if anyone else had the same reaction to this novel. Maybe I'm off my rocker!

Thanks. Yeah, Someone I hate will keep me turning the pages as readily as someone I love. If I hadn't already read so many novels I loved by this author, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

Thank you so much for commenting.

Right you are. I mean, life is too short and there are too many books out there to read. (And ones that need to be written!)

I know....isn't it amazing? And that book is absolutely peppered with similar passages. Thanks for commenting.

Helen Ginger said...

So true, Yvonne. I've not read Solar, and after this, I'm sure I won't. Your readers need to react to your characters, love them, hate them, relate to them, see themselves in them, or react to them in some way that makes them want to read instead of going to sleep. That's what we strive for as we write.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

That's so hard when you struggle with a book! You definitely have to feel something for the character. If you're unable to invest yourself in him/her, then you can't get much out of it.

But Faulkner was just brilliant, wasn't he? I used to eat and sleep his words when I was in college. Pure genius.

A.M. Kuska said...

Sometimes even great authors just plain miss. I saw a play about saving the Earth a few years ago, and let me tell you...I recycle. I use energy saving light bulbs, but all I wanted to do after watching that save-the-earth special was to run through my house, flip on every light, and dump all my carefully sorted cans and bottles in the trash. It wasn't the intent of the play, and I know it was a heartfelt attempt to convert the sinners of the world into erasing their carbon footprint, but it didn't work. The characters were just too painful.

I will never forget those characters, and their attitude. >_> If you can forget, I'll be very surprised.

Cat Woods said...

Thanks for the review and the honest opinion on character. If I don't connect with a character, I will no longer keep reading. My time is too short to ignore my family for indidfference.


Yvonne Osborne said...


I'm late to Faulker. I think I tried a long time ago and gave up. He's definitely worth the effort and this is one of those books I can't imagine reading on a Kindle because I had to keep going back, writing in the margins, and re-reading passages. Thanks for commenting.

A.M. Kuska,
That is interesting. A play with characters so pathetic you wanted to go out and do the complete oppposite of the behavior they were trying to encourage. I think you're right....bad characters can be as hard to forget as the good ones. Thanks for commenting!!

Exactly. Time. Time. Time. It all comes back to the ticking clock. The unbroken clock. The symbolism of time and clocks is used by Faulker in this book a lot. Thank you.