I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.
I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.
Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.
And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!
But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.
Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.
That’s the kind of book that I want to write.
Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.
In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.
But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.
Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.
I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).
So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.