Novels can be crippled by a too-weak or too-strong counter-narrative

shell900.jpgI have learned a lot about writing novels this year. In fact, I can actually enumerate some of these. By far the most important one is that in a novel, people need a reason to be the way they are.

This is a sharp difference from real life. In real life people do not need a reason to be how they are. In real life people simply are, and the origins of their personality and drives can be somewhat obscure.

In fiction, this doesn’t work as well. A novel is the culmination of a long story that the main character has been telling about himself. And unless that story is well in progress by the time the novel starts, you’re going to end up with a lot of dead time right at the beginning (at exactly the moment when you ought to be pulling the main character in).

The way I like to think about it is, “What is the story that this character is telling about themselves? And how is that story being challenged?”

I’ve started to see a novel in dialectic terms. It starts off with a character telling themselves one thing, and then a counter-narrative emerges to challenge it. For instance, my debut begins with Reshma telling herself that she’s smart and ambitious and capable of anything, including being a popular social butterfly. But then a counternarrative emerges: perhaps she’s not that smart; maybe she’s only a cheat. And those two narratives duel throughout the novel, with first one gaining the upper hand and then the other, until finally Reshma is forced to abandon her narrative and search for something new.

I think this is important for two reasons. First, you want the character to have a reason for doing the things that they do. Secondly, you also want to know the story you’re not telling. I’m not telling the story of how Reshma became popular. That’s a story she thinks she’s telling. It’s the story that the book leads you to expect will come. But what you get is something slightly different. And only when you understand the expectations that your novel is creating can you deviate from them.

I was having this conversation recently with a reader of this blog, and he mentioned Mrs Dalloway as a novel that didn’t bother to set or exceed expectations, and I was like mwuahahaha, what are you talking about? Right from the beginning, the story sets up three expectations:

  • Will Clarissa’s dinner party go well?
  • What will happen when Peter and Clarissa finally meet?
  • Will Septimus get the help that he needs?

And Virginia Woolf is very aware, throughout the book, of the stories she isn’t telling. She’s not telling the story of a stifled woman trapped in an overly formal marriage who’s suddenly confronted by the man she should have been with. But she is aware that her novel could be that story, and she consciously plays with that narrative.

I think the really difficult thing is making both the narrative and the counter-narrative into something interesting. Too many novels stiff the counter-narrative. They make it kinda trite and unbelievable. And when you do that, your novel ends up closely resembling the initial narrative, and then the whole thing feels kind of cliche.

And then there’s the opposite problem (which is one I run into quite often), where the counter-narrative is too believable, and you end up saying, “Err, yeah, the hero is a dick. Why do I want him to win again?”

This is the problem that you don’t learn about from reading books: books with a too-strong counter-narrative are rarely published, because they’re simply not readable.

For most of this year, I’ve struggled to create good, complex narratives and counter-narratives, and finally I ended up just writing an entire novel that’s literally about the struggle between a fantastic (you’re a hero) and a realist (you’re a bully) narrative. In trying to write fantasy novels, my problem has always been that the narrative is too strong–what can possibly be said against heroism or saving the world?–so finally I had to use humor to intentionally soften the hero narrative.

But there’s another book I’ve been trying to work on for years (I’ll tentatively call it “The Man Book”) which has the opposite problem. The counter-narrative is way too strong. In this case, there’s simply no defending any of the narratives that I keep proposing for the heroes in my various iterations of this book. This is the problem that I almost had with Enter Title Here. In fact, in retrospect I still can’t believe I got away with writing about a girl who was so utterly entitled. I think maybe the only reason it worked was because the stakes were relatively low (ultimately, who cares who gets what grade?) and because her narrative did have a lot of strength (Reshma is smart and talented and extremely capable, and obviously does deserve to do really well in life).

And that’s my thoughts about narratives and counter-narratives. I have no idea if it helped you, but it’s been extremely helpful for me in clarifying some of my thinking. I love it when blogging does that.

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