Monday, October 30, 2017

Dialogue, Character, and Setting

What makes dialogue good? Let me answer with another question: Do you feel like your words, when you say them, are real?

Of course. Once you can answer why that is, you’ll know for sure. Some people say dialogue has to feel real and mimic the way that people would speak normally, but that’s reductive advice. Dialogue should seem as if the characters are saying real things, but they don’t have to say them in real ways. Everyone on this planet speaks a little differently, everyone, and in the worlds you create in fiction, people speak however the hell they want.

However I want? No! Characters will speak the way they want. A good character has their own way of doing things, and even if that way is supposed to seem familiar, it’s their way.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sullivan. You make it sound like characters, my characters, have free will. Yes, and a lot of writers will tell you things like, “I don’t even know why, but my character just did it” and you, like me, may feel inclined to think of these people as a little crazy.

So, if I am trying to make a character better, I should give them free will? You don’t just give them free will. You believe. Believe that your characters believe what they do. Think of the driving force of fiction as independent of you.  And keep in mind that a well-written setting will make your reader feel as if they can see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe taste. Maybe they can imagine it with their other senses. A good setting feels like you want readers to feel. In the best cases, the reader can imagine living there, no matter how bizarre. Science-fiction and fantasy worlds can be so engrossing in this way and it has a lot to do with geography and culture.

Culture? It has to exist in a story. It can be an echo, it can be a central theme, but people have culture. Culture—politics, economics, art, philosophy—shapes characters. It shaped you. It even shapes your writing. Be aware of it. What things does your character do? Can you think of an occupation, or a country, or a religion? Any little feature that you can expand on?

I feel like I’d run the risk of misappropriating some other culture that way, if I set my story somewhere else, or if I tried writing a character who, say, follows a religion I don’t. Good point. Do research. Be reasonable with how much you try to say about a character’s culture. Don’t let it determine your character, but let the setting and all its components play their due part. Be respectful. Have some trustworthy test readers give you feedback. Listen when they tell you things wouldn’t happen a certain way, or things don’t make sense. It’s hard thinking of character backstories sometimes. Now, get down to the nittiest and grittiest of it all. A lot of writers tell you to know your character completely before you even write, but that can choke creativity. I don’t always completely craft the character beforehand, instead letting the setting and plot and even style flesh out the character.

What about letting my character be the driving force behind the setting? Not like a character driven plot but like everything the main character does gives the setting detail. I can see a way or two I could manage that, something a bit more nuanced than a person literally thinking something into reality, but that’s an experiment for you to try. It sounds weird. Weird is good.

We write characters for readers to empathize with, or not, right? So, it’s to keep the reader on their side. But maybe also because their reality means something to them. Believing what they do lets them do what they do with…sanity? The illusion of sanity? Sanity. Yes. Solid identity. Now you’re getting into psychology here. Isn’t psychology different everywhere? What does it depend on?

I don’t understand. People think differently, have different expectations depending on where they live. To use a craft term, the stakes will be different. Water is scarce in a desert, but just as essential to survival. If your character lives in a desert, water is a bigger concern, generates more stress. We live in Florida, the biggest anxiety we have about water is whether or not it’s going to rain.

The point you’re trying to make, if I understand you, is that what’s at stake has to do with a character’s environment. Why didn’t I just say that?

No one can stop you from rambling, is all. What?

Nothing. Hmph.

Jonathan Sullivan owns a tiny giraffe, one zombie chicken, and is a tornado.

Monday, October 23, 2017

These Bodies Are Not Metaphors: On Writing Sexual Assault

            With the now seemingly consistent deluge of harassment, assault, and rape allegations dominating the news cycle, and the subsequent attention fleetingly paid to the tireless activists who have fought to bring awareness and solutions to these issues, it would be willfully foolish to deny the influence any given depiction of rape has in our cultural conversation: pop, personal, or political. Rape, assault and trauma are established pins of all that we consume: literature, art, television. The tropes du jour often use sexual violence as shorthand for the trial-by-fire background story necessary to convincingly build a Strong Character (we see this often in science fiction, fantasy, but it is equally pervasive, albeit quieter, in fiction of most genres). Of course, the most extreme version of this is the Rape/Revenge trope, a holdover from 1970s exploitation films, that has resurfaced in surprising, more complicated ways. Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max: Fury Road, are successful examples, to name only a recent few.  Whether these depictions occasionally hit the mark of a realistic trauma survivor experience is decidedly beside the point: survivor characters’ rapes often become their entirety.
            When past experiences of sexual trauma are used as passive expository blurbs to fill a half-flat character’s background, they can read as insincere or gimmicky. To remedy this, pop culture has swung massively in an opposing direction that demands rape be depicted as both heinously violent, committed only by the criminally depraved, and that survivors be wrecked so essentially, to their very core, that they are oftentimes incapacitated by fear or infatuated with vengeance. These are, of course, the extreme examples, but they overshadow the thoughtful, nuanced depictions of fully rendered survivor characters in our zeitgeist.
            And, here is where the writer’s dilemma lies. Rape is real; it is pervasive, so this demands that portrayals of assault and harassment be purposeful, intentional. But, depicting it as an exhausting demon with the power to coerce a character’s every action, inflicted by soulless predators, does a disservice to both our characters and the cultural conversation at large. Rape is not a metaphor for other kinds of violence – not global warming, not thought policing, not genocide – it is a violence of its own. Rape is not the stand-in for an interesting background story, like a summer spent campaigning for a third-party candidate or being raised on a farm. So, when we mean to engage with sexual assault as a plot device or a character’s background, we are not simply adding texture to a form ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ archetype. We are building a character that has a full life both before and after their assault. These bodies and places and conflicts might be creations all our own, but choosing to engage with sexual assault means that we must consider the real bodies, the people, that are implicated by our words. We owe them nuanced, researched depictions.

Caitlyn GD is a second year Fiction candidate at FAU. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Voicemail Poems, and Potluck Magazine, among others. She currently lives in South Florida with her loving partner and two indifferent cats. She wants you to know that Die Hard 3 is the best Die Hard.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Keep it Inside: Argument for Silent Character Minds

If observing each other’s thoughts were a normal part of communication, society would have crumbled in its infancy. The food your ancestors stashed away for the winter would be common knowledge and gone, ailment and weakness within families would be public domain and liability, and any ambitions about climbing the social hierarchy would be flushed out and likely suppressed. The status quo would achieve permanent status. Nice for those in charge, but what about you? What about the protagonist of that story you’re writing? Can there be a story, a chance at change, if the actions taken were known before being taken?
            Maybe. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.
            Concealing the interior thoughts, especially of the first-person protagonist leading your tale, is essential in retaining tension and interest in the story. This is not only because mystery=suspense=climatic jibberjabber, but because revealing interior thought of any character pins their limbs to a rubber-lined tray and forces participation in a dissection of the story’s why, almost always too soon. If characters are plot, then the thoughts of those characters run the risk of selling that plot out before it blooms.
            Consider film. Unless done in some kind of humored irony, character voice-over narration is a scarce phenomenon, and is usually only done to ground the observer early in the plot. Outside of this, film relies on setting, events, and acting to advance the plot. Characters don’t borrow the camera and spill their personal beans; they keep those beans canned and act upon them. In fiction, it’s too easy to supply protagonists with access to the reader’s mind and move the plot through that connection, but doing this cheapens the reading experience in the same way an over-zealous Star-Wars fan can ruin the most recent installation by pausing and explaining the subplots underlying what’s happening on the screen.
            How to guard against this is simple: forego the interior. We can’t read each other’s thoughts in life, so we read word choice and tone, body language, and overt concerns. The same practice should be applied to writing fiction. In Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the developmental stages of the plot pass inside Louise’s mind. While the reader is given glimpses into her internalization of her husband’s death, these moments are used to explore an unknown rather than establish some static truth of the story, and physical effect comes with those thoughts:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearful. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. 
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back[.]
There is physical, observable ramification to the thoughts. They are slight and personal, but her state of mind is established in these moments through her body’s expression. Her elocution doesn’t express her feeling, only what she’s experiencing. The reader is made to interpret her response to these thoughts and derive their effect from them, and that is what they want. Silver platters get returned.


Jason Wilson is a third year MFA candidate for fiction at Florida Atlantic University.