Monday, May 7, 2012

Buying and Selling

Trinculo and Ariel in Shakespeare Walla Walla's production of The Tempest
For the second story I ever submitted to workshop as an MFA candidate, I did some research. The whole story was based on a news article I'd read, and to make it as accurate as possible I maintained an email correspondence with a local policeman and beat a pumpkin with a ketchup bottle, the pumpkin standing in for a human head. All this was done to ensure that I would not hear that most odious of workshop phrases, the one that has dogged me my whole writing career: "I don't buy it."

Unfortunately, it didn't work. The research I did with the cop (which I printed and brought with me in case anyone questioned the fictional policeman's actions) failed me; one of the first negative comments a classmate has was that he "didn't buy it." My research didn't make a dent in this opinion. It didn't matter to my readers what would and would not happen in real life (and they were convinced what the cop told me was a lot nicer than what he would actually do) if it didn't match the image the readers had of cops in their minds. I thought this was pretty unfair, but I didn't want to be that person who argues at the end of a workshop, so instead I told them about my Mythbuster's-style attempts at finding the effects of assault with a ketchup bottle. Always leave them laughing.

Eventually, I dumped this particular story (especially since it was about a pregnant woman and I really doubt I'll be able to understand pregnancy until I've experienced it) but I did learn a valuable lesson from the argument surrounding it. Stories rely on common knowledge. You could say they rely on stereotypes, cliche, and prejudice: all things we are taught not to use in our writing. Veer too far away from what people already have in their heads, and they will squawk. To get away with it, you have to convince them. Start with what people think they know and mold their ideas from there.

This sounds like I'm underestimating readers, I know. I don't mean to. What I mean is that if you write about a ballerina, an image hops into a reader's brain. To make her more than a tutu and a tight bun, the writer has to do some work. The farther from stereotype the ballerina character gets, the less the reader is automatically inclined to believe in her. Write a lazy ballerina who eats cake every day and yet holds a position in a major ballet company, and readers will scoff. You'd have to do something drastic to convince them, and finding data about one particular real-life ballerina who had a super-charged metabolism and never cleaned her room isn't going to do it.

This is why it's fun to write fantasy. If it doesn't take place in our world, then there's no common knowledge to compare it to. Ballerinas might be fat and lazy in Middle Earth. The ability to dance might be some sort of ancient magic.

But I don't write fantasy--at least, not often. The novel I'm working on right now is set squarely in the real world and as such, I keep worrying about believability. But when I  worry too much about believability, I start to take refuge in cliche. So then I worry about cliche. It's a terrible cycle, and though years ago my defensive research did nothing to defend me, I've started to look to research to break it.

For example: I'm writing a character who is going to school to be a computer engineer, and interning at an engineering firm. Maybe this isn't an occupation the average person knows all that much about, but anyone might guess that an engineer needs to be pretty left-brained, that a lot of them know more about computers than people, and that geekiness is practically part of the job. That would, in part, be true. Engineers are known for their lack of people skills; watch Office Space and you'll learn about that. But this character I'm writing is also interested in theater. Here's where I start to worry.

I know someone in real life who has a degree in engineering (or physics? I don't know him all that well) and wants to be an engineer, but who is also an actor. I didn't meet him through my engineer husband, but when we were in a play together. At first, this bolstered my belief that my character would be believable--he's out there in the flesh! But when I eventually get this book in front of editors, I can't bring this real-life person in as proof when they question my character's contradictions. It makes no difference if it happened in real life or not. I have to make them believe it.

This isn't a central character. He's supporting cast all the way. The reader only gets to know him as far as the central characters get to know him, which makes it hard to give a full picture of his soul. To keep him from hogging page space, I've considered changing him from an actor to a stage hand--put him in the light booth, which is technology, which is believable for an engineer, right? But though it makes perfect sense that way and the story isn't about him and I just need him in the same space with my protagonist, who is an actor, I worry that I'm pandering to supposed expectations by denying his artistic dreams.

To figure this out, I went to the theater. I saw a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the play I'm using within my novel, and I tried to imagine my character performing each of those roles. It gave me confidence that he can do it. It also helped me remember that not all acting is about art, and that even fantastic productions can contain weak actors. Also: I doubt the general public has as strong a mental picture of engineers or actors as they do of, say, prostitutes or priests. So my character is good with math and a soldering gun, but he can also gambol about playing Trinculo in a community theater. Skeptical readers will just have to suspend their disbelief.

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