Jun 252010


#6:  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

How often do we lie, hide, evade, and otherwise avoid a truth in life?  I don’t mean big lies, lies of consequence, but little ones, white lies, lies of avoidance in place of harsher truths.  Most of the rules of polite society demand decorum at the expense of honesty.  The common question in the street, “How are you?” is seldom met with a genuine response.  If it was, the inquisitor would likely run for the hills.  We are expected to behave, to polish reality, to adhere to the strictures of proper behavior, and this tendency can bleed over into our writing.  (Well, it did in mine.)

Charles Baxter, in his essay, “Create a Scene,” says, “In fiction we want to have characters create scenes that in real life we would typically avoid.”

In a story I submitted for my third packet, I did something right (at last!) which created a spark of drama.  I had one of my characters speak honestly to his wife when he didn’t necessarily want to.  It was an uncomfortable moment, and my character spoke a truth that in real life he probably would have avoided saying out loud.  Prior to this moment, I had diligently avoided making this choice in much of my writing, but once I did, the scene erupted with dramatic potential.  (It fizzled soon after, but hey, I’m still learning.)

Doug wrote about this scene in my packet letter: “But then the scene develops good drama when Jacob actually tells the truth.  I love it when a student learns to use the truth to power a scene.”  They were only two lines in a 5 page, single spaced response, but what joy at reading those two lines!

On our follow-up phone conversation, Doug reminded me that at each moment in a story, the writer chooses how a character acts.  The writer, through the characters, decides to evade or rush forward with the truth.  Those choices change the outcome of  scenes and stories, creating vibrant, dramatic ones, or, in my case before this scene, creating flat, lifeless ones that mimic the undramatic experiences we have every day.  In much of my previous writing, my characters mostly behaved like genteel people, avoiding the truth in a bland mimesis of reality.

Baxter again: “The story becomes the stage, not for truth, but for self-actualization.  We try to imagine the person as we would like ourselves to be and as a result write a banal and lifelessly idealistic story.”

In life most of us are duty-bound to follow very different rules than the ones we create in our writing.  In fiction, we’re unfettered.  In fiction, the inner demons can rage.  By allowing them to do so, the writer creates an opportunity for drama.

On a specific, concrete level, such drama can be created simply by having characters tell each other difficult truths.  Baxter calls this the “staging of a desire, making a darkness visible and dramatic.”

I knew avoidance was wrong and that it impeded my story.  That was the frustrating part.  I knew that desire/resistance leads to conflict which leads to drama, but I had a hard time enacting it in a scene.  Doug’s simple solution of having my characters behave honestly (usually in dialogue) significantly helped me understand the potential at various stages throughout a story.

I found myself going back to this lesson again and again throughout the semester.  My characters began to blurt out things that most people wouldn’t say sitting around the dinner table.  Baxter says we need such spectacle.  “Bad manners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dramatic force.”

By taking this relatively small step, and letting my characters speak the truth, I found a tangible technique that helped me amp up the dramatic potential of a scene.

Up Next: #5: My Love Affair with Abstractions

See also other entries in this series starting with #10.

-Rich Farrell

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