Thursday, October 15, 2009

Finding Meaning

I try not to be didactic, but I believe that everything I write should be about something. That there should be deeper thematic elements at work than unmasking the killer, uncovering the conspiracy, defeating the badguy.

My plots are spun from the way that history has been carved up and commodified, bought, sold and stolen to the level where the black market in antiquities is second only to drugs for the amount of money generated.

There's plenty of fodder there to create a rippin' yarn, but not a memorable one. It's the characters and the characterization that make a story memorable. And much though I deplore the cultural commodities market, there's much more that a book needs to be about before I feel it's a good one. Because it's not enough to thrill a reader, I want them to think too. And if you don't empathize with a character, you will forget about them as soon as you close the book and put it back on the nightstand. Which is why a lot of what I write about here is about characterization.

Back in February I posted an extended meditation on what it meant to feel empathy for someone. Not the knee-jerk appearance of empathy like a bartender making sympathetic noises while letting a patron bend his ear, but actual empathy. Luckily for writers, I find that it's easier to empathize for a fictional character than it is with a real human being.

Empathy requires a certain amount of imagination and active listening skills to discover what the other person is up to beyond what you can see. In reality this is tiring and time-consuming, so we revert to surface impressions as an act of psychic self-defense. Understanding of what's behind the mask is easier in fiction because the writer shows it to you. In a book or even a play, I can show you the inside of a person's head. Even in a biography (a well-written one at any rate) there's greater scope to our understanding of the individual than we ever get in real life. And until our society shifts to allow extended soliloquizing, I suppose that's not likely to change.

The easy social framework of archetype and stereotype simplifies our daily interactions. At work or school, in traffic, or in the supermarket, we tend to skate across the surfaces of people, only troubling to dig beneath the surface for the sake of loved-ones and friends. Not so in fiction. In the fictional realm, a writer that skims the surface of characters is doing a disservice to the reader. Which brings us back to giving stories meanings deeper than the plot. Empathy is the handmaiden of complexity. And if my books are about anything, it's that most of our problems are the result of an insufficiency of empathy and a lack of complexity in how we view the people around us. Across generations, across the aisle or across the table, so much of the tumult in our world comes from reacting to an understanding (or what we laughably call 'understanding') that fails to scratch beneath the surface impressions.

My novels tend to be charged with social and religious themes and I purposely put people whose social and/or religious viewpoints conflict at the same table to deal with them. Because if all our artists, writers and filmmakers show us is people in conflict over these issues and never people of opposite views finding common purpose... what hope do we have?

There's no way to type that without sounding absurdly PC and quite possibly namby and/or pamby, but there it is.

While we might take advantage of archetypes and definable characteristics in our writing, I think it behooves writers to always remember that character runs deeper than plot. Literature is our one chance to step outside ourselves and take a trip inside someone else's skin. Be it Holden Caulfield or Atticus Finch, you're stepping outside yourself, viewing the world through another set of eyes. Even if you're borrowing the skin of Robert Langdon, you are outside yourself for the moments you spend in his world. Let's make the trip worthwhile.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).