Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Empty Vessel

Like all other things, I've found that blogging is cyclical. For a while I'll have nothing to write about, and then suddenly I have a rush of topics, too many to do in a single post or even a single week of posts. There are four different ideas in my draft queue to write about, along with a post cannibalized from previous material that is suddenly relevant again.

So, topic #1 for today. In my previous post I mentioned that Matt drew out something from me about what I prefer in heroes that is apparently unlike most readers. I marveled at it for hours afterward because I'd never sketched this difference so cleanly before. We were talking about main characters, and I told him that it's always bothered me how the main character has to be the superhero of the story. Why do we have to read about the apocalypse from the POV of the guy who saved the world? There are so many stories out there about this particular apocalypse, and the story of the guy who saved the world is going to be part of the history books anyway. Why not hear some of the more obscure stories? I want to read them. The writer can choose to write about anybody, after all.

I told him that the type of main character I'd always wanted most to read about was someone like Lucy Pevensie from the Chronicles of Narnia. She didn't have any special powers; she wasn't a keen archer like Susan or a great leader like Peter or especially clever like Edmund. She was smart enough, and brave, and honest, and had a good heart, but none of those things set her so strongly apart that she was the superhero of the story. Yet she was the central narrator of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I loved her dearly. Still do.

For so many reasons. I could give you a dozen examples of moments where I identified with her, wanted to weep or celebrate with her, admired her for her cool head or her compassion. For instance: when she decides to explore the wardrobe, she leaves the door open behind her, because she knows it's very foolish to shut oneself in a wardrobe. This utterly sensible instinct endeared her to me instantly. (Of course, Edmund is not so sensible.)

This is where I'd put a picture of Lucy if I could draw.
Google Images only turned up photographs of Georgie Henley,
who is all wrong because she isn't blond.
(Sorry, Georgie.) 

I always want my heroines to be like Lucy. She doesn't have any overarching motivation other than to explore, be with people she likes, and do the right thing. She's instantly relatable because her superpowers are nonexistent; she's just a little girl who does her best.

In the course of explaining all this, I looked at our bookshelves, and saw that a lot of the books I hold dearest have heroes like this, and a lot of the books that everyone else loves have central characters steeped in exceptionalism. Holes, for instance, has the most singularly ordinary hero I can think of, and I am deeply enamored of that book. Conversely, The Hunger Games tells the story of the girl who not only defeated all of her foes, but did her part to topple an evil empire. Bag of Bones is about just, you know, this writer. Ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, with pretty subtle motivations at first. But Harry Potter is the ideal example of the central superhero - he's the most unique person in his entire universe. Although Harry moves me (since he, too, is always only trying his best in a hard world), I've always had a bigger soft spot for Ron Weasley. He is the non-Harry. (And Hermione, of course, whose superpower is BOOKS.) Why do I love Samwise so much more than Frodo? And Legolas so much more than Aragorn? They're along for the ride; their goodness sees them through, but they're not driven the way the superheroes are. And Superman? He's the most boring character in all of Christendom.

Yeah, yeah. Sell it to somebody else, sweet cheeks. 

This is why, in writing the [non-]horror novel, I accidentally made the sidekick more interesting than the main character. I wanted the main character to be a Lucy Pevensie, brave and smart and trying her best, but not pushed by any distinct motivation other than what was forcing her hand. I wanted readers to replace her with themselves, to hope for the best and admire her instincts and imagine how they would react. I failed to understand that a) fictional main characters need more of a motivation than "get through this in one piece", whether trapped in a lodge or trapped in their own lives, and b) non-me people enjoy reading about the superhero, not the empty vessel.

So one of the two biggest changes I'm making in the rewrite is to reinvent her as the superhero. I cringe to do it, because it always seems like...a coincidence, you know? As if it just so happens that the person you started with on this journey is the most important person in the book. Nay, the most important person in the world. All the books that start out with the central character on an ordinary day at college and wind up with the central character clinging to the bottom of a supersonic helicopter and shooting at terrorist dolphins (is there a book where that happens? Maybe I should write one) seem like they're the documentarian who got lucky by focusing on the ONE girl among hundreds who went from Miss Teen Podunk Hills to Miss Teen America.

Leaving aside beauty pageants, this was an important writing lesson to me. Even though I don't always want to read books about the superhero, they're certainly the most popular ones, and the ones I should probably try to write at this point in my nonexistent career as a novelist. I think that ties back to uncompromising art; my friend Max left a comment on my Facebook link to that blog post saying that maybe what people do is they compromise the art to get published/funded/whatever, and then they write the stuff that's really bizarre and awesome, once they have an audience. I thought petulantly of a bunch of examples where this didn't happen, where the art was what it was from day one and no one had to compromise to put it out there. But then I learned that the Beatles did this exact thing. And thought of a ton of examples of radical artists compromising a little bit (didn't even have to be a lot!) at first to be able to stride forward into experimental wonderfulness. So score one for Max. Where the line is between compromise and whoring oneself I think is a more complex question, and different for every artist, but it's not today's post.

Although today's post certainly did tangent a lot. Speaking of which, visual-art friends, can one of you draw me a picture of someone hanging off the bottom of a supersonic helicopter shooting at terrorist dolphins? Because as much as I wanted to be able to draw a picture of Lucy Pevensie as I see her, the image of grizzled terrorist dolphins with bandannas and cigars clutched between their teeth and souped-up AK-47s in their flippers...I don't think I've ever wished quite so badly that I could draw.

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