“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”
On an afternoon I’m supposed to be writing, I get up and walk around. I fidget. It happens when something isn’t coming out right.
I’m in a library. Books surround me. There are times when this can feel oppressive to a writer with a work in progress. So many books. Why add to the noise of language? What will one more work add to this vast outpouring of story?
There are other times when the shelves and shelves of books feel like a resource. I have an army of allies. At the right moment, you can hear the books whispering to you. Some of them are whispering answers. Some of them are trying to help you finish your story.
You take from a random shelf a random book and turn to a random page. Except it isn’t a random choice – you have been pulled by some uncanny magnetism to the right book at the right page at the right moment.
Or it could be truly random. Outside the framework of causalities real and imagined, most everything is.
This time I reach for David Gerrold’s book on science fiction writing, Worlds of Wonder, because I don’t have a copy of it at home (well, I do, but it’s from the Columbia library, which means it one day has to return to their shelves).
The “random” page I turn to is under the chapter title “Transformation” (page 101) and addresses the matter of fictional characters, specifically protagonists, and ways to think about the problem of change that most every fictional protagonist has to face.
The whole matter of characters in fiction has been on my mind a lot. Science fiction has always been perceived as having problems with the creation of vivid characters. For much of its history, the criticism has been valid, with many and varied notable exceptions.
The criticism remains valid. I had been reading through the most recent “Best of” anthology for science fiction, looking for stories I wanted to assign to my students for class reading. I found many great stories with many wonderful characters, but I also waded through pages and pages of depictions of empty people, dead inside, psychologically opaque, mechanisms suffering “hardware issues.”
It wasn’t that these characters weren’t interesting in their deadness, so to speak, but that this same kind of character kept on showing up again and again and again until it sounded to my reader’s ear like a pianist banging on the same key over and over.
Today, we have better writers, better schooled in both sciences and arts, and the ones who pursue short fiction are rarely burdened with the necessity to hammer out one story after another to make a living. There is no living to be made from writing short stories. So why should all these protagonists be so similar? Why do so many of them seem to be simply going through the motions?
I have an interest in this question as a teacher. I want my students to be the writers who will break this contemporary convention. But I also have an interest as a writer myself. Have I fallen into the same morass? Or will I, eventually? Is there something I can keep in mind so that I can maintain my own standard that places character at the core of any successful story?
At the outset, Gerrold tells us, The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.” The story can go no further without it. It’s the reason for everything included in the story and the reason why the story is about this character, not someone else.
In boldface: “Transformation is the reinvention of the self by the Self.” The problem, or nemesis, or obstacle, the character faces is not so much what prevents the transformation, it is the self, or “Self” defining the obstacle as insurmountable, at least by the character. Gerrold describes the character as saying, “I can’t handle this,” then continues, “By choosing to make this situation the problem, the hero creates himself as the source of the problem. Until he recognizes his own authorship of the dilemma, he cannot create himself as the source of the resolution.”
Forgive me if my summary makes this idea seem too convoluted. The simple version, best as I can manage it, is: “The real conflict of the story is not between the character and the external obstacle, but the character in conflict with him/her/it/they self.”
Which reminded me a lot of William Faulkner, in his Nobel lecture: “… the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
An obvious, and fitting, connection.
What it also reminded me of was this passage I encountered in Louis H. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea, his last great statement to beliefs in art, and nature, and its reflection in his architectural work, published the year of his death in 1924. Sullivan writes of himself in the third person, which can be a tad annoying for twenty-first century readers, but bear with him here. He describes the moment when his aesthetics all clicked together for him:
He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution. That a postulate which does not contain and suggest its own solution is not in any sense a problem, but a misstatement of fact or an incomplete one. … he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man's nature, he must seek the solution within man himself. ...
In other words, chosen by that author with an uncanny penchant for finding “other words” that live forever, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. …”
Or, as Gerrold states it, “The moment in which the hero recognizes, ‘I’m the problem – ” he also recognizes the corollary: “—therefore I’m the solution!” His commitment becomes ‘I can handle this. I will handle this.’”
Story structures can vary. In a “realistic” story, the problems may not be so apparent. In a science fiction story, the science-fictional concept may serve to define the internal conflict. The concrete representation is external and tangible, but the solution is internal – is personal, even if the subject is personhood itself, as it can so often be in contemporary sf.
It may seem overly self-reflective to say that the character’s plight echoes the plight of the author in writing a story. The solution is to found in the problem itself; if the problem is within the author’s imagination, so is the solution.
Let’s throw this in, just for the hell of it, a little something I picked up in a faculty seminar when novelist Nami Moon was teaching at my school. Conflicts can be divided into two groups: “Chronic conflict” (long term, over the course of the character’s life), “Acute conflict” (the immediate situation which spurs the problem within the story).
There’s a distinction here that’s useful in most any kind of fiction, but may work with exceptional success in a science fiction story. The science-fictional problem in the story reflects what has long-dogged the central character, in fact, defines that character.
Science fiction can and very often does explore the concrete representations of emotional and metaphorical hopes and fears – we fear change; we need change; we fear the “other”; we are the “other.”
What makes the form so thrilling and interesting that it can expand upon these basic emotional dichotomies to limitless dimensions. We have more than one universe to play with.
It’s just important that, in making these stories memorable and resonant, that we remember where to seek the solutions to their immense and wondrous problems.