Richard Bausch was the visiting author at Hamline last week. During his interview*, he talked about trouble. We writers have to bring trouble upon our characters and right away. I’ll paraphrase: Bausch said that so called “entertainment” fiction is about trouble that is solved by an action. Rambo’s mother died. Who does Rambo go shoot? While so called “serious” fiction is about the kind of trouble you have to befriend and continue to live with.
If the trouble a character faces is too easily solved (no matter the number of car crashes or shoot outs) it does not help anyone grow as a human being, it does not increase anyone’s understanding of the human condition. Everything I write is about serious trouble because I am interested in understanding what it means to be human.
In life, trouble comes upon us and we cannot understand it. In fiction (and this is one of the reasons I write) we have the opportunity to understand, especially as the author. Bausch said in his interview that “there is an incredible reasonableness to the world’s characters.” We get inside their heads and we know what they love, what they fear, what motivates their every action. And from the perspective of reader, we are privileged to observe the machinations of the world, to understand the order of things.
My antagonist in Saving Annabelle, whom I talked about in my last post, Going to the Dark Side, is the trouble I’ve visited upon my protagonist. In life, I would say such a person is incomprehensible. I could never get inside that head. Yet, as a writer, that simply won’t do. I need to know why he does what he does. Renee asked me if journaling from his point of view makes me more sympathetic toward him.
If by sympathy, we mean understanding, then yes. If by sympathy we mean pity or shared feeling, the answer is no. I need to understand him to create a reasonable universe on the page. In coming to understand him, I can tell you he is not pure evil. He is tortured by what he does and feels incapable to stop. My goal in understanding him is not to find common ground with him or somehow like him. My goal is to make him move through my fictional world in a way that makes sense with all the elements of this world. To make sure none of his actions are inconsistent with anything else I’ve written. My goal, in short, is to be reasonable.
In the end, the trouble I have visited upon my characters will be resolved. The antagonist will be dealt with. It won’t be neat–don’t bother looking for a bow on top–but if I have done my job well, it will be reasonable and satisfying. And hopefully, it will stick with the reader for a few days after the back cover is closed.
* Bausch’s interview will be printed in the 2011 Water~Stone Review.
Get Your FREE Guide to ReVision
Join hundreds of Word Essential writers to receive inspirational writing tips and advice.