10 June, 2013

A Musing on Character, Plot, and My Current Writing Project

As do most grand plans, it began with a simple enough idea. The story I wanted to write would be about a young autistic shut-in oblivious to society’s disintegration around him in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Only when his weekly grocery delivery doesn’t come does the character, Ethan, venture out for food. How would the autistic reliance on routines, Ethan’s disinterest in people (alive or undead), and his myopic worldview lead him to face the challenge of trekking across town amid shambling flesh-eaters — and how would he react when the comfort of his small apartment got obliterated by the inevitable collapse of the power grid? These were the questions I set out to answer in the form of my story. As I said, it started out simply.

The story I ended up with (mentioned briefly in this post, last summer) was twenty-eight pages — too long to submit to any magazine for publication, too short to be a book. Nonetheless, everyone thinks their offspring is beautiful and perfect, and I loved my monstrously obese brainchild. I just couldn’t show it off to anyone because it was too fat to go outside.

Writers do this all the time, committing to paper the commercially unusable, simply because a particular story demands to be told. It’s like demonic possession, minus the vomiting of pea soup. Knowing that I’m in good company for having created something ostensibly worthless did nothing to lessen the feeling that I wasted a couple of weeks of my life when I filed my story, “The Association, Ethan Birch,” into a folder bulging with other misfit works I’ve written under the influence of the Muse.

That Muse, she’s a capricious thing. Those weeks I spent writing, rewriting, and polishing “The Association, Ethan Birch” were actually time I was ignoring another, more ambitious project, a sci-fi novel I summarized inartfully (not to mention inaccurately) as “Rain Man on a spaceship.” After months of false starts and tens of hours of research into a motley array of subjects — weaving-loom operation, chromatophore reflection in cuttlefish, the possibility of Lorentzian wormhole traversal as a means of interstellar travel — I realized that my novel-in-progress could not overcome one critical stumbling block: all the factual correctness and theoretical plausibility in the universe couldn’t make up for the narrator, an autistic savant with a faculty for machines, being totally unrelatable.

To a great degree, character is story. Who a protagonist is determines much of a plot, far more than all the deus ex machina happening in bad TV may suggest. Desires, fears, quirks, curiosities, shortcomings — these shape a character’s decisions, and no matter how white-knuckled a writer may want to grip his story, no matter how many natural disasters, serious illnesses, or freak accidents he enlists to assert authorial control, the characters are the ones who decide how a narrative will unfold. At least, this is how it goes in effective fiction. A writer could presumably construct a story around nothing but elements that are beyond conscious human influence, but then he’d have a Michael Bay script: CARS’ BRAKES GIVE OUT, MILE-WIDE METEORITE COLLIDES WITH EARTH, VOLCANOES ERUPT... and so on.

Having interesting and believable characters is an obvious part of the challenge a writer faces. Ensuring that the anticipated story is flexible enough to accommodate those characters is another part. To make the novel I was writing work, the story had to be told in the first person. Yet the protagonist’s unrelatable otherness was irreducible. To change him would be to alter the plot; to alter the plot would be to fail to tell the tale I needed to tell — a situation too twisty to even call a catch-twenty-two. (And here’s a bit of dramatic irony: the working title I had for the novel was Singular.) Another, less flattering but more honest way of expressing this is to say that the tale I wanted to tell sucked.

I put the draft I’d been writing on indefinite hold, and it was then that I wrote “The Association, Ethan Birch,” a story that, for all its apparent simplicity, would launch me deep into thought and spawn a whole other project.

Ethan, the narrator of the story, encounters other people during the crosstown journey that comprises the first part of his ordeal. And although these people only appear in the story for a brief while, occasionally just mentioned in passing, perceiving them through the lens of Ethan’s super-exaggerated literalism and naiveté made me wonder who they really were, how they might view Ethan, and how the collapse of civilization would transform everyone into a blank slate, forcing many to reinvent themselves according to the standards of the new order. Identity, as apprehended and projected (sometimes misleadingly) was suddenly on my mind a lot.

My brain often floods when I think. Much of that spill-over ends up on paper. The ideas that flowed from my consideration of the characters throughout “The Association, Ethan Birch” came out in notes. Max from Humboldt is full of shit and Why is the woman at the church? were two. Then there were the more practical inquiries: What happened to Gina? and How did Trish and company end up as traveling companions? I hadn’t intended for any of them to be deeply considered; still, ostensibly throwaway characters haunted me. Like someone who put feeder mice into his pet python’s terrarium, only to soon afterward feel an empathetic urge to check on them, I wanted to get to better know the people I invented, and to find out how they fared in that wasteland I so callously cast them into.

I considered other hypothetical scenarios that might arise in my zombie hellscape, too, and have expanded on the inventory of personalities I began with. (Not being too well-versed in the genre, beyond George A. Romero movies, the novel World War Z, and the Walking Dead TV series, may have helped as easily as hindered me.) I wanted to explore who people become when their environment makes it nearly impossible to retain their full humanity, to delve into how they cope: what’s the first thing to go; what can’t be let go of? It should surprise no one that the aforementioned gamut of human experience makes excellent story fodder.

And just like that, I’m working on another book — a series of interweaving first-person accounts that are lurid and lovely, chaste and obscene, poetic and mundane as real life, but accentuated by the horror that’s become the everyday. It’s to be a novel-in-stories about somnambulists in a waking nightmare, a book whose plot lines are determined almost wholly by the whims of its characters — an about-face, in terms of technique, from the way Singular moved. I’m excited to see where this book’s inhabitants lead me.

1 comment:

  1. I love this. It's fascinating for me to hear about other writers' process and how a character, plot or entire story comes about. It's especially relevant to me when I'm struggling with a character who seems to be very flat, and, am apparently now going back to work on a book I abandoned a few years ago.

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Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.