February 21, 2011

Putting Yourself on the Page

I thought of one after another idea for a blog post this morning, and then rejected them all. So I returned, as I always do, to the running list of possible topics I keep adding to. It’s funny ~ this list is like the running list of ideas for short stories and novels I keep. Some ideas are timeless and I always remember them, but some fade away. When I wrote the idea down, it seemed really original and interesting, but when I look back on it, I think, what was it about that? I don’t even remember. That’s why I sometimes lament lost ideas. If I don’t strike when it’s hot, it might go away. But this comforts me when I lose an idea because I don’t write it down: If it’s a good idea, a lasting idea, it’ll come back to me.

The idea I chose from my list is this great disclaimer from the bottom of an email I saw recently:
This e-mail is a natural product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects nor should it be used to judge the intelligence of the sender in any adverse manner.
I love this! It’s witty and fun and shows the character of the sender. It personalized the sender ~ as opposed to depersonalizes, something we often try to do in "objective" writing, especially professional writing.

It strikes me that that’s often what we’re trying to do in fiction writing. We’re trying to put the person in our writing, be it ourselves or our characters. Another word for characterization. Periodically, I help my brilliant engineer brother with his reports and proposals, and he does the same thing. He tries to make the dry parts human, to connect on a personal as well as a professional objective level. And that’s one of the secrets to his success, his ability to relate to people and to bring people together into teams (against the engineering stereotype).

Yes, we’re trying to put character on the page, but an even broader thing, a thing we don’t talk about much, is we’re trying to put ourselves on the page. I’m not talking strictly memoir. I’m saying, it’s as if we’re at a big dinner party and we’re trying to be a good and amusing guest. Our stories represent us in the dinner party that is the reading world, and we need to be good guests.

I read this recently on a New York Times book review:
Simply, [taste is] the extent to which we take pleasure in the company of the author — or rather, a facsimile thereof, a phantom version composed of and subsisting on words alone.
It’s so true. You’ve all read books, I’m sure, where you’ve thought, I really would not like to hang out with this person. You’ve also read books where you’d give your eye teeth to hang with the author for only 30 seconds - and you’ve hung out in a long line just to have a moment’s glance from that person, maybe an autograph. Then there’s the person who appears one way on the page, but then you find out what a horrible person they are in real life.

I always put something a little odd and interesting in my bios. I think you need the regular thing, published in such and such, but you’re also trying to be interesting, so I’ll put in a line like, “Having been raised on a ranch, Tamara appreciates indoor plumbing,” or something else odd.

I’m struggling with this is a slightly different form right now: I’m trying to balance third person limited point of view with a stronger narrator than I’m used to. So there’s layer upon layer. There’s this character’s point of view and then that character’s, then there’s the narrator’s, and then there’s me, the author, out in real space. Quite a balancing act.

Then there’s the differentiation between being likable and being interesting and compelling. You don’t want all your characters to be likable. They’ll come across as namby pamby people pleasers. Some of them can be, but they should actually have less likable traits, if they’re going to come across as full characters. What I puzzle about a lot is not so much likability but how to make them compelling. What makes the “best” characterization? They can’t have all the traits of a real person because a real person is too complex, but they can’t be a stereotype either (main characters, that is).

And you as the author are often equated with your main character. Sometimes this is a fair comparison, and if this is the case, most people want to be liked and don’t want to show their warts. You want to be that good guest at the party. But you have to resist this urge with your characters to some extent or it’ll come across flat.

Representation on all levels is a very complex issue, one particularly difficult for people-pleasers like me.

Questions of the Day: Are you of the interesting-dinner-guest school? Or of the art-comes-first-please-people-later school?

2 comments:

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

We're much alike, Tamara - in addition to the ranching, non-runner thing. I'm a people-pleaser, too. And in my first novel, I did exactly what you mention here: made many of my characters too sweet, too perfect (maybe subconsciously wondering if people would think 'she' was me?). But in 2010, I read a few novels with tough-as-nails characters who had their share of faults, but with whom I really identified. So, I'm trying out a tougher persona for my MC, and I'm LOVING it. Undoubtedly, I - as author - have some of her traits. But by no means am I her. This time, though, I'm most concerned with creating compelling characters - and no so much about any comparisons of author-character that might emerge. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Tamara said...

Ranching non-runner. :-)

I totally understand. You like your characters. You want to be nice to them. You want people to like them. Also, if you're like me, you'll catch yourself pulling back and not letting them in harms way because, after all, they're your friends!

Thank you for stopping by! I hope your writing is flowing like the Wyoming wind!

~ Tamara