In my last post, I talked about how to dramatize a character’s escape from the haunting effects of shame or guilt by seeking to regain the respect or obtain the forgiveness of the person most centrally connected to the humiliation or injury.
As I noted in the piece, however, and as many of you noted in your comments concerning your works in progress, it’s often impossible to achieve that respect or forgiveness for several obvious reasons: the person who can grant the reprieve is unwilling or unable to do so. Perhaps the person is dead. Maybe he’s hard of heart. Perhaps the events triggering the shame or guilt are so extreme that forgiving or forgetting is out of the question.
As I reflected on all this after the earlier posting, it occurred to me that many of the situations one encounters, both in life and fiction, are of this type, where there is no one person whose respect or forgiveness can complete the arc of transformation.
So what does a person—or a character—do in such a circumstance? How does one remove the stain of guilt or the cloud of shame when there is no one to turn to for clear-cut absolution?
A similar issue arises when the wound crippling the character’s soul isn’t caused by shame or guilt, but loss. How does one return to a “state of grace” when death, betrayal, rejection, illness, or some other misfortune turns one’s focus away from pursuing the promise of life, and instead points it toward protecting oneself from the pain of life?
The answer, interestingly enough, lies with the love story.
Although there are love stories in which an old romance is rekindled or reclaimed, the vast majority of such tales concern linking one’s affections to someone new.
This experience is so universal in real life we tend to take for granted why and how it occurs.
[Romantic love] is so universal in real life we tend to take for granted why and how it occurs.
Claudio meets Brownwyn (or vice versa), they feel that curious emotional itch known as attraction, they flirt, they test the waters, date, date some more, kiss, canoodle, consult with friends and family, perhaps a therapist or bartender, possibly a lawyer, maybe the dog. If things look promising they take it to “the next level.”
Feelings deepen or dissolve (or burst into flame). If, however, matters trend along a positive path, sooner or later someone makes The Big Move or Pops the Question or Finds a Muffin in the Oven—and the next thing you know, so-called friends are pelting poor Claudio and Brownwyn with small white projectiles disguised as rice.
But we, as writers, know that it’s not so stumbly-bumbly. Real life enjoys the distinct luxury of not needing to make sense. Fiction, of course, can do no such thing. Claudio is attracted to Brownwyn for a reason.
Real life enjoys the distinct luxury of not needing to make sense. Fiction, of course, can do no such thing.
The reason becomes more necessary (and interesting) the more Claudio and Brownwyn fail to conform to the boringly homogenous couple—generally compatible in education, disposable income, number of flagrant warts, etc.—that social science reminds us is the norm.
Not so with our lovers! He’s dopey and sleepy, which is to say happy. She’s sneezy, thus, bashful, and more times than not a tad grumpy. What can they possibly see in each other?
The phrase you complete me has entered the Galactic Museum of Clichés, but the truth at its heart, so to speak, reaches back at least to Aristophanes’s famous fable in Plato’s Symposium.
Aristophanes relates the tale of the earliest humans, who came in three forms: male, female, and androgynous. They all had two heads, four arms, four legs, etc., like two present-day humans stuck together, and were very powerful.
To decrease their power, and yet increase their number (so as to enhance the amount of worship and sacrifice they could offer the gods), Zeus ordered them cut in half. Ever since, each half has sought out the other, hoping to reunite with its former companion and regain the perfect unity they once enjoyed.
The point: for a long, long time, we’ve known that romantic attraction isn’t accidental.
This general notion has been embraced for centuries, embodied in as humble an idea as opposites attract (also to be found in the GMoC) or as heady a one as Freud’s repetition compulsion (where lovers repeatedly seek out mates modeled on an abusive or inattentive parent), or Jung’s concept of anima-animus projection (by which individuals unwittingly seek out those who echo their own suppressed, unconscious personality).
The point: for a long, long time, we’ve known that romantic attraction isn’t accidental. We choose our mates deliberately, if not always consciously. Or wisely.
As fiction writers, we know all this. The sneakier, subtler problem isn’t why it happens in the grand scheme of things, but why precisely, in this time and place, Claudio finds Bronwyn kinda sorta hot. Why these two people? Why now?
In real life, we like to retain a bit of mystery in answering such questions. It appeals to the more romantic or sentimental interpretations of fate we hold dear.
Even as readers and writers we don’t want things spelled out too clearly. Characters whose motives are too plainly depicted normally find themselves diminished in the readers’ esteem.
Characters whose motives are too plainly depicted normally find themselves diminished in the readers’ esteem.
But the need for mystery can’t be used as an excuse for lazy writing. Fiction, as already noted, needs to make sense in a way real life does not. And thus we need to have at least an inkling of why, despite their conspicuous differences, Claudio and Bronwyn feel that inscrutable itch.
I humbly suggest that the answer lies in how their lives have been ruined in the past.
I know that sounds like overheated shtick, but as writers we need always to think in terms of raising the stakes, and I think the need to love and be loved in fiction (if not life) inevitably results from a desire to reclaim something true, real, caring, and hopeful from the ruins of the past.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, the character harbors a deep-seated need or longing to be a certain kind of person, to live a certain way of life. I call this the yearning. It remains unfulfilled. Why? Some weakness, wound, limitation, or flaw has created a sense that fulfillment of the yearning lies out of reach.
Or, as I put it earlier, the character has stopped believing in the promise of life, and begun focusing on protection from the pain of life.
The character has stopped believing in the promise of life, and begun focusing on protection from the pain of life.
This dimming of the light of hope is what I mean by ruining one’s life. It’s how we settle and compromise, telling ourselves it’s for the best we abandon our dreams and “face reality.”
Compromise isn’t always cowardly or dishonest, of course. Sometimes our dreams are truly wild-eyed or at least misplaced, and only by fine-tuning what we yearn for, so that it lies more honestly within our reach, can we become who we want to be and live the life we want to lead. This is often referred to as the wisdom of acceptance. There is also wisdom in daring of course, and wisdom in knowing which is appropriate, acceptance or daring, in any given circumstance, or to which degree…
But I digress.
The state of lack created by unfulfilled yearning, the desire of the solitary person to find a mate, to fall in love, to share her life, speaks directly if mysteriously or unconsciously to a sense of loss. We know love, or believe we do, but it has somehow slipped away. We want it back to cure the emptiness, the loneliness. We’re looking for the person who can appease this longing.
In crafting our characters, we plumb the depths of their experience precisely to find those moments of joy and sorrow, shame and pride, guilt and forgiveness, loss and connection, that frame their deepest sense of who they want to be and what they want from life. The positive moments keep alive the hope for what the negative moments have diminished or destroyed.
And then something happens: a misfortune occurs, or an opportunity presents itself. (Inciting incident, anyone?)
In ways the character may not see initially, the misfortune or opportunity echoes the earlier moments of shame, forgiveness, joy, loss, etc. The character in some way recognizes that the exterior challenge speaks to a deep inner need: to overcome the weakness, heal the wound, transcend the limitation, rectify the flaw. To be happy. To be whole.
In ways the character may not see initially, the misfortune or opportunity echoes the earlier moments of shame, forgiveness, joy, loss.
In most great stories, this wedding of interior struggle to external challenge will also require or create the opportunity for an interpersonal relationship, or the deepening of one that already exists. It’s this weaving of the three lines of conflict—interior, exterior, and interpersonal—that provides the story with its thematic unity.
It’s the weaving of the three lines of conflict—interior, exterior, and interpersonal—that provides the story with its thematic unity.
And so in devising a story in which the character needs respect or forgiveness from someone who can’t or won’t provide it, or one in which the pain of a great loss, betrayal, or rejection has diminished the character’s hope for a gratifying life, we need to see how the exterior challenge and the interpersonal relationship (in love stories, they’re often the same), speak to the interior struggle—the character’s need for love, or authenticity, or dignity, or redemption.
How does this particular goal or this particular connection with this person help overcome the weakness, heal the wound, transcend the limitation, rectify the flaw?
If you find yourself having trouble answering the question—and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s seldom a snap—look to the love story for inspiration. How do people fall in love? Pretty much the same way they overcome their guilt, their shame, their despair, their loneliness, their lack of self-worth.
Something or someone calls to them, beckoning the better self, the person they want to be, the life they want to live. Even if they’re mistaken about that better self and ideal life, the struggle will offer an opportunity to be more brave, more honest in the answer.
Maybe they’ll fail. It’s your story.
And yes, there are indeed stories where no such struggle occurs, no arc exists, no transformation is at stake. There are stories where nothing happens, the characters are stuck, or stumble blindly through a labyrinth, never finding the way out. Maybe the character is simply a signifier in a system of signs. Modernism and its post- and post-post progeny have made considerable hay from such stories. This accounts in part for the equation of ironic with wisdom.
But if I can invoke Old Man Hemingway for a moment: “True nobility isn’t being better than your fellow man, it’s being better than your former self.” There’s nothing obsolete, inferior, sappy, or unwise in writing stories about that kind of nobility. Ask anyone who’s suffered a great lose, or needed to seek forgiveness.
Does your story concern someone who’s suffered a great loss, rejection, or betrayal? How does the misfortune or opportunity they face in the story speak to that experience, and offer some way to overcome its effects?
Does your story concern a character seeking to come out from under a cloud of guilt or shame, but the person who might forgive or respect her can’t or won’t oblige? How does the external challenge and interpersonal relationships in the story help the character resolve this interior struggle and find some kind of redemption?
Note: Due to an ongoing house renovation requiring my input with workmen, considerable moving of furniture, etc., I may be away from my desk for considerable amounts of time today. I will try to respond to your comments as promptly as I can. Thanks for understanding.