Today’s guest is the venerable Michelle Hoover, a true literary luminary who has won the PEN/New England Discovery Award been a MacDowell Fellow as well as a Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University. Currently the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University, Michelle also teaches at GrubStreet, where she leads the Novel Incubator program. Her debut novel, The Quickening, was a Forward Magazine’s Best Literary Debut Pick, a finalist in the The Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award, and a 2010 Massachusetts Book Award “Must Read.” Her second novel, Bottomland, released earlier this month (Grove/Atlantic) and is a March Indie Next Pick.
The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire
You’ve heard it before: What does your character want?
Many a world religion has found its purpose in dousing this terrible human business of wanting things—and wanting them desperately. But the drafts of many early writers are muddled with protagonists who have no greater existence on the page than a pair of eyeglasses. By temperament, writers tend to be observers. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have much material. In a recent class, an older student of mine raised his hand to explain that his protagonist didn’t so much as “want things” but “preferred to offer his observations on life.” The room groaned (albeit politely). I imagined said protagonist as the thinly disguised student himself, with a longer name, a larger nose, and a rougher jacket.
It’s ego that keeps a writer and his protagonist-twin tidy at the sidelines, pontificating. Desire is messy. Desire is stupid. Desire bares a person’s heart and makes him do messy, stupid things. That’s frightening stuff for the kind of person who’d rather read a book about a bunch of strangers at a party than attend one. The biggest excuse I hear from writers with flimsy protagonists is that their characters don’t know what they want. “That’s what the story is about.” No, I answer, it’s you who doesn’t know what your characters want. And there your characters are, doing cartwheels, hoping you’ll pay enough attention to them to figure it out.
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olin Butler reminds us that without a character’s yearning, “nothing resonates in the marrow of [readers’] bones.” He goes on to differentiate between the type of desire expressed in entertainment fiction (e.g., “I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart”) and that expressed in literary fiction (“I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other”). He later scolds his fellow literary writers: “But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.”
Butler’s biases aside, he has a point. Literary writers tend toward dreaminess and a fair bit of snobbishness about these things. As Phillip Gerard describes in his essay “An Architecture of Light,” the literary writer is so “beguiled by the stunning inspiration effect of the finished cathedral” that they “fail to imagine themselves in the place of the artisan contemplating how to build the damned thing.” Flannery O’Connor is a bit more direct: “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” [Read more…]