Right, then. Honesty.
This is an odd one in many ways, because writers are professional dissemblers. We’re a pack of liars. We make stuff up, and if we’re extraordinarily fortunate, we can even get people to pay for us to do it. The title to Lawrence Block‘s exceptional book on writing – one of his many, actually – Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, really says it all. Or, to paraphrase the late Spalding Gray, writing is “telling the lie that tells the truth.”
So writers are liars, and the beauty of it is, the audience knows this. As with a magic show, they arrive willing, even eager, to be fooled. They know they’re going to be tricked, and they submit themselves willingly to the deception. They willingly suspend their disbelief.
To a point. Right up to the moment that they’re taken too far, and then they’re gone, and you will not get them back. Right up to the point where your lies are so blatant and bald they can no longer ignore the deception. And once they’re gone, they are gone, brothers and sisters. They’re out and more than that, they’re likely a little ticked off at you, too. Because it’s one thing for everybody to accept the deception, and it’s another to throw it in their face. You can be a liar, but you don’t ever want to put your audience in a place where they are forced to name you as such. They’ve come willingly, remember, they’ve come to be deceived for their pleasure. You abuse that at your peril.
(This is, incidentally, why coincidence is so difficult to manage in fiction. Coincidences do happen, after all, sometimes with alarming frequency. But a fiction is a crafted, structured facade, and reliance on coincidence, as with Deus ex Machina, betrays that. It’s good to remember that being Honest is not the same as being Realistic. Reality has coincidence, and a lattice work of causality that can be daunting, if not impossible, to effectively recreate in a fiction. A story has Rules, ie, and the audience presumption is that, if a detail is included, that detail will be relevant. An example – I work at a coffee shop about 8 blocks from my home, a straight line. Every single time an emergency vehicle whizzes past, lights and sirens running, heading in the direction of my home, I have to fight the urge to call Jen. Because I’ve noticed the detail, and I’ve constructed a narrative instantly and unconsciously. It’s absurd, and it’s also, frankly, arrogant, but we are arrogant creatures – on some level, in our minds, the universe is too big to not be about us.
But I digress.)
I offer the following quick example, from a novel I read long ago, the author of which shall remain nameless: Character A is a military officer serving on a naval vessel. Said naval vessel engages in combat, and Character A comes up short, and a lot of people die. Character A loses said vessel, and, we are told – not shown – his courage and self-confidence, as well. Character B arrives, takes Character A out for a night of heavy drinking and a peptalk, and the next day, Character A returns to active duty and Saves the World. Apparently with a hangover.
I call bullshit.
Everything in the above is plausible, mind. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it’s emotionally dishonest. It’s emotionally false. Even in my above summation, you can see, you can imagine, the emotional state of Character A following his defeat. You can believe in that. You can even, if you’re exceptionally invested or exceptionally empathetic, feel it. Thus, when the cure comes from a bottle and a ‘go get ‘em, tiger!’ speech, it rings hollow. It rings wrong. It rings false. As a reader, as a member of the audience, I want more. I want echoes. I can accept the go get ‘em speech as a means to start the long road back. But I sure as hell don’t buy it as the cure-all the author in question presented it as.
This emotional honesty is, to me, one of the most important – if not the most important – elements of good writing. You can write your story about Clockwork Men from Jupiter, or a Master of Magnetism, or an Amazon Princess, or an ape in a lab, you can craft the most outlandish, surreal, absurd scenarios, but if I believe in your characters, I’m there to the last page, panel, or frame. If I believe in their inner lives, in what they feel and follow why they feel it, I’m in. If you’re just moving shells around from action set piece to sex scene to set piece, I’m out, and it doesn’t matter to me how pretty the picture or how delicate your prose. If I don’t believe in the heart of your story, it is, quite literally, not worth my time.
Honesty, in this sense, is about telling the truth. Not about relating facts, but about relating those universal (well, as far as we know) moments that we have all shared in some way or another. These needn’t be the Big Truths, this doesn’t have to be about Love or Death or God, and, in fact, I’m more inclined to chase down the smaller ones, myself. In the end, they lead to the big ones, anyway. But, as human beings, there are things we all share, and even if you’re not writing about human beings, even if you’re writing about a pack of rabbits, these eternals remain. We know what it’s like to look longingly at someone who doesn’t see us. We know what it’s like to be cold, to be tired, to be frustrated by the jackass in line ahead of us at the store. We know what it’s like to surprised by a friend or humiliated by a foe. We know what it’s like to lose our keys, or to have a day where every little thing is going wrong. We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt it. If you can draw that line, you engage the reader, and you tell a story that is, ultimately, True, regardless of its genre or its setting. Again, I refer you to Haldeman’s The Forever War, a novel that is entirely outside the scope of our human experience, and yet is as emotionally true and evenhanded as any I’ve ever read.
You have to be honest with your characters. You have to be honest to your characters.
That last part can be hard. That last part requires Courage. Because sometimes you’ll be writing something and you will know, you will know, what has to happen next, and it’s going to hurt to write it. Because a character you love must die. Because a character you love must lose, or be humiliated, or hurt, or heart-broken. Because you didn’t want to write that kind of story, and all of a sudden, there it is, in front of you, and now you’ve got a choice. Because you don’t know if you have the skill or ability or talent or whatnot to actually make the words do what you want them to do, to make the audience understand exactly what it is you’re trying to say.
And you have to choose. Tell the truth of the story, or don’t. Avoid it. Run away from it. Rewrite it so it needn’t ever be.
Or run towards it and be prepared for the agony writing can be.
Which segues nicely into the next part of this unending ramble.
Next time, then, Courage.