The Human Condition:

Web of Character and Depth of Detail – November 27, 2016

Web of detail

There are traps in a major artistic endeavor like writing a novel. Similar traps exist, I imagine, in painting a large picture or mural, or composing a major symphony, but writing stories is what I do and what I know best.

The novelist has many threads to coordinate, especially in multiple-character or “ensemble” stories, such as I like to write. The author must weave together the personal relations among the various characters; the temporal relations among their actions, including initiating choices, reactions, and consequences; and the congruence of the characters’ actions with their established personalities and motivations. All of these, like the highlights and shadows in a painting or the contributions of each instrumental section to a score, must maintain the overall balance, tone, and proportion of the work.

To make a good story, the main characters must not be too passive, just letting things happen to them and then reacting according to their natures. This may be the way many people in real life function, but it makes for a poor figure in a story. But neither can the characters be too dynamic and all-encompassing. It’s fine for fantasies, comic books, and pagan religions to treat with gods and superheroes as superlative beings who can be daunted but never defeated, but you wouldn’t want to meet such a person in real life, and you couldn’t identify with such a character in a serious, modern story.

The draft first-half of my sequel to The Children of Possibility, which is tentatively titled The House at the Crossroads, has two main groups of characters working against each other. One group, the Troupe des Jongleurs from the original novel, has been fairly easy to portray and align, because they are dedicated in their mission, are naturally aggressive, and come to the page fully weaponized. But the second group, a young people whom “the Builders” send back into history to establish and operate the original Crossroads House, have been harder for me. They are scheduled to embark on a mission that suddenly changes because of the Jongleurs’ actions, and the terms of their commitment suddenly become much harder. As originally conceived, these young people were restless and bored, Europeans making life choices in a stale and static job market, and going back in time to become innkeepers at a temporal waystation simply looked like more fun than joining the reserve army. But my outline and my draft had suddenly placed them in a situation where they were forced to abandon their normal lives and undertake what was essentially a suicide mission.

When I sent this first half of the book to a good friend and fellow novelist, who is one of my regular beta readers, he rejected their situation immediately. He doesn’t believe in casually accepting suicide missions or in characters so passive that they will agree to a change in the original deal without convincing rewards or dire compulsions. He pointed out that walking into a buzz saw just because this couple gave their word and signed a binding contract is not a credible motive. And if the Builders pushed them forcibly through the time portal to complete a hopeless mission in a primitive ancient time, most people would disregard their instructions and, instead of lying low to avoid temporal paradoxes, would go full Connecticut Yankee and try to change history to their own liking and for the sake of their own survival.

My bad. This is also perhaps the greatest failing in my storytelling. Personally, I believe that most people are honorable, accepting of their fate, and stick to their commitments. I believe they must be yanked out of their comfortable chairs in order to send them on an adventure, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. I’m not emotionally in tune with the sort of people who wake up every day searching for action and spoiling for a fight, like Louis Wu in Larry Niven’s Ringworld stories or Kimball Kinnison in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series. So my characters often have small dreams amid placid lives until something or someone collides with them sideways, and then they are forced to cope, to demonstrate their resourcefulness, and perhaps to fight for their lives. It’s not a bad approach to storytelling, but it can lead to traps like the one I fell into with House.

My novelist friend thought the fix would be a simple change in attitude, leading off with a few scenes of derring-do for the young couple, and then producing some kind of golden promise by the Builders sending them back on the doomed mission, so that the couple is emboldened, empowered, or coerced into going willingly. My friend was confident that my subconscious1 would easily figure out the necessary incentives. What I faced, however, was one of those “can God conceive of a stone too heavy for Him to lift?” puzzles.2 What incentive can you give daring and aggressive people to go back in time and then patiently wait for an outcome beyond their natural lifespans, meanwhile enduring hardships and eventual ignominious death, without them wanting to—even resolving to—change things?

Sometimes books just go wrong like this. Every novelist has a drawer or a hard disk full of half-baked stories and partial outlines that have struck a motivational or character-improvisational rock and foundered. Sure, the subconscious will figure it out … one day. In the meantime, why not turn to something else with a clearer path and story line? My novelist friend didn’t intend for me to stop telling the House story, because he found it interesting and compelling. And I think he tried to make the disjunction and its possible fix seem a lot smaller and less of a problem than it was.

The other difficulty with this conundrum—especially when the novel has already gone beyond the outline stage into an actual, 50,000-word, partial draft—is that to build up a credible story in the author’s mind, he or she must first give it enough complexity, memorable imagery, and substantiating details to make it come alive in the imagination. As a novel comes together, the telling acquires a depth of detail—layers of moss (for forest imagery) or barnacles (sea imagery)—and the characters acquire their own tastes, quirks, mannerisms, and speech patterns that make it difficult to change or even deflect their sense of self and the story’s direction. All of these details, swirling in the author’s brain and playing peekaboo with the subconscious, are a prerequisite to finally sitting down at the keyboard and telling the story in the reader’s real-time version.3

To change my characters’ intentions and reactions and to discover a reward or compulsion that would make them act against their motivations would mean ripping all this up and starting over. So, momentarily—actually, for about a day and a half—I noodled this unsolvable problem. Then I remembered the novelist’s salvation: the infinite malleability of character, space, time, and story line. If you can’t fix the problem, cheat.4

So that’s what I did. I found the one detail in all of my planning and thinking that had created the hang-up and turned the workable proposition into a suicide mission. And then the clouds parted and beams of sunlight shone down. I had a way forward. I will still have to scrap, envision, outline, and rewrite maybe three or four chapters out of the first fourteen; make some substantive changes to another two or three chapters; and then comb through and make minor deflections throughout the text, including that one hung-up detail. But this work is all doable. Moreover, it will make for a better story with more challenges for the characters to resolve with a hopeful spirit.

Still, this work of changing the story arc, adjusting character expectations and reactions, and revising a cascading series of incidents—all of this is no small matter in a fully developed draft. It is like trying to straighten the Bent Pyramid without taking it apart stone by stone. The author is moving heavy blocks of text in his mind, hearing them grating across the uneven surfaces of underlying stones, and perhaps seeing them grind away details of the story. It may be necessary work, but it takes time, and the experience is … fretful.

This is part of a writer’s working life: solving one problem after another until you can put in place the last dab of paint or the closing bars of the melody.

1. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

2. I had already faced that challenge with the first draft of my first published novel, The Doomsday Effect. It involved a planetary catastrophe with a micro black hole that was devouring the Earth from the inside, and no one could capture and contain it, so humanity was forces to build interstellar ships and flee. Fortunately, a good agent and a good editor made me see that I really had to find a way to solve the overarching problem—but that’s another story.

3. “Reader’s real time” is my shorthand for the ground-level walkthrough of the story. This is the reality that the reader will experience upon meeting the words on the printed or electronic page.

4. “Change the conditions of the test,” in the words of Captain James T. Kirk—said with a wry smile.