"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's my motivation?

I'm weepy today.

It could be that my hormone meds are no match for my mood swings. Or the post-vacation blues. Or a general letdown from the rigors of life. Here's what I do know:

1. The vacation was accompanied by a splash of stress. It was the first year without our friend, Jim, who passed away from pancreatic cancer last September. We all felt the loss in little things. A favorite food not eaten, or drink not taken, an empty chair at the dinner table. No one played the guitar.

In addition, the "kids" are barely that anymore. They are all in high school or college. Some of them couldn't come because they have jobs and obligations. Their independence is wonderful and exciting and frightening, because some of them are trying to spread their wings into dangerous winds. For those of us who've been there, done that, and have the scars, it's worrisome.

There were other forces at play as well, problems that run deep within other families and are not mine to discuss, but I feel the pain of them anyway.

2. Marcus is leaving this Saturday to return to college. Yes, it's his second year, and I was very excited to see him go the first time. This is different, mostly because he now has a car. When he was a freshman and needed to come home or go somewhere beyond Long Beach, I drove over and picked him up. It's 20 minutes from our house. Now, he no longer has to wait for me to drive into the dorm parking lot and pick him up.

I'm no longer needed.

Add to that his current plan, of finding work in Long Beach and getting an apartment over the summer (with a friend). At that point, it will feel like he's really gone.

So this afternoon, as I cruised through Facebook, I found myself looking up Jim Barnes' page and crying, in a quiet, tears-down-the-neck, way. No sobbing or heaving. But weeping. Weeping about everything.

Why am I sharing this?

Because, if I'd put that scene in a story, I think most readers would stop and say, "WTF?" Why is she crying? This makes no sense. If I layered in a bunch of reasons for an extended crying jag, I run the risk of boring the reader with backstory. Maybe, instead of sympathy, my character comes off as having a pity party. The readers would say, "Geez what an annoying character."

Then they'd stop reading.

The secret life of characters is a difficult sell, especially in genre fiction. Genre readers (I'm speaking in generalities here) want to move through a book quickly. They don't want simplistic characters but they want their motivations to be clear-cut. Anything that makes them stop and absorb a complex moment has to work. Or else.

Literary fiction is, of course, different. You can let your characters wallow, as long as it's well-written wallowing. To show a master at work, I've selected the last paragraph of W. Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday. It's a rather long paragraph and I'm kind of laughing at all the long sentences with semi-colons (secretly I'm loving them because I adore a good semi-colon), and don't worry that it will spoil it for you if you've always wanted to read Christmas Holiday and never got around to it. Trust me, you can still enjoy the book.

* * * * *

The clock struck twelve and they bade one another good-night. Charley went to his warm and comfortable room and began to undress, but suddenly he felt very tired and sank into an armchair. He thought he would have one more pipe before he went to bed. The evening that had just gone by was like innumerable others that he had passed, and none had ever seemed to him more cosy and more intimate; it was all charmingly familiar, in every particular it was exactly as he would have wished it to be; nothing could be, as it were, more stable and substantial; and yet, he could not for the life of him tell why, he had all the time been fretted by an insinuating notion that it was nothing but make-believe. It was like a pleasant parlour-game that grown-ups played to amuse children. And that nightmare from which he thought he had happily awakened - at this hour Lydia, her eyelids stained and her nipples painted, in her blue Turkish trousers and her blue turban, would be dancing at the Serial or, naked, lying mortified and cruelly exulting in her mortification, in the arms of a man she abhorred; at this hour Simon, his work at the office finished, would be walking about the emptying streets of the Left Bank, turning over in his morbid and tortured mind his monstrous schemes; at this hour Alexey and Eugenia, whom Charley had never seen but whom through Lydia he seemed to know so well that he was sure he would have recognized them if he met them in the street; Alexey, drunk, would be inveighing with maudlin tears against the depravity of his son, and Eugenia, sewing, sewing for dear life, would cry softly because life was so bitter; at this hour the two released convicts, with those staring eyes of theirs that seemed to be set in a gaze of horror at what they had seen, would be sitting, each with his glass of beer, in the smoky, dim cellar and there hidden amid the crowd feel themselves for a moment safe from the ever-present fear that someone watched them; and at this hour Robert Berger, over there, far away on the coast of South America, in the pink-and-white stripes of the prison garb, with the ugly straw hat on his shaven head, walking from the hospital on some errand, would cast his eyes across the wide expanse of sea and, weighing the chances of escape, think for a moment of Lydia with tolerant affection - and that nightmare from which he thought he had happily awakened had a fearful reality which rendered all else illusory. It was absurd, it was irrational, but that, all that, seemed to have a force, a dark significance, which made the life he shared with those three, his father, his mother, his sister, who were so near his heart, and the larger, decent yet humdrum life of the environment in which some blind chance had comfortably ensconced him, of no more moment than a shadow play. Patsy had asked him if he had had adventures in Paris and he had truthfully answered no. It was a fact that he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted a venereal disease, and he hadn't even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him, it was rather curious when you came to think of it, and he didn't just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world.

* * * * *

Now then, if Mr. Maugham had told us Charley began to weep, we'd completely understand.

How about you - do you want to see this much depth in your characters, or should they just cry when they've stubbed their toe?


Jenny said...

Characters should have this much depth, but they should also cry when they stub their toe, and if they cry for no reason at all....I could relate to them even more.

Gayle Carline said...

Perhaps it's a women thing after all. I think a lot of women can accept that a female character can just suddenly cry over something very small that happens to have the weight of the world behind it. I always worry about the writing of it. As Elmore Leonard says, you do want to leave out the parts most people skip.

Helen Ginger said...

Oh how times have changed in writing. Most readers today would just skip over the majority of that paragraph!

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