Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He knew that he had waited too long…”

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"He knew that he had waited too long..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 48. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the trickiest aspects of writing a story, especially when you’re working within a familiar genre, is the management of nuance. Nuance, in general, is a good thing in fiction: life itself is nothing if not composed of ambiguities, and we tend to judge authors by how well they reproduce those subtleties and unknowns. Yet clarity also counts, and much of the revision process is spent trying to trike a balance between an accurate representation of the world’s uncertainties and the clean line of narrative that a readable novel demands. Nuance, in itself, can amount to a stylistic device: its homely details and smoothly rendered contradictions become a way of concealing how schematic the story really is. A mystery novel, for instance, is a sort of confidence game, an intricately designed puzzle that pretends to be an organic sequence of events. The dead ends and red herrings that the author builds into the story are as calculated as anything else, and the result only works if the sleight of hand remains invisible.

This can also apply to character, in even more insidious ways. Fiction rests on its ability to create the illusion that names on a page are real men and women, even as they occupy roles within the overall picture. Too much emphasis on one side of the equation can throw off the entire story, so writers find ways of sustaining fiction’s simulation of reality while simultaneously advancing the plot. This is why fiction places so much weight on motivation, which can be a fiction in itself. One of the few points on which most professional writers can agree is the importance of a clear sequence of objectives: as both David Mamet and Kurt Vonnegut have said, at any given point in the story, it should be fairly obvious what the protagonist wants and how he or she intends to get it. In real life, we don’t always know why we do things, and while some writers have devoted their careers to evoking that kind of ambivalence, in practice, fiction demands a little more clarity than strict psychological accuracy would allow. And much of the challenge of creating compelling characters lies in figuring out how much nuance is enough.

"You want to cut my hair?"

In many cases, it’s the story itself that provides essential clues. We’re usually told that characters should shape the plot, rather than the other way around, but in fact, it’s both permissible and desirable to have the line of influence run both ways. None of us exist in isolation from the world around us; our personalities aren’t cleanly demarcated, but blur into our interactions with others and the situations in which we find ourselves. A decision that might seem perfectly logical and considered at the time later turns out to have been shaped by outside forces of which we’re only dimly aware, and it’s only in retrospect that we start to see how we were part of a larger pattern. The ongoing dialogue between character and story reproduces this in miniature. Character only has meaning in the fabric of the narrative within which it’s embedded, and the needs of the plot can provide crucial, and surprisingly nuanced, information about behavior—often in ways that would never occur to the author if he were creating a character without any context.

In City of Exiles, for example, Lasse Karvonen is as close to a classic villain as any I’ve written. He’s a sociopath with all of the usual warning signs—including pyromania and cruelty to animals as a child—and most of his actions arise from a cold, nearly inhuman pragmatism. Yet he has one big weakness: his sentimentality toward his home country of Finland. At this point, it’s been long enough since I wrote the novel that I don’t really remember if I introduced this trait with an eye to how it would pay off later on, but toward the end of the story, it creates his first real internal conflict, as he struggles over whether to obey an order from above by eliminating his Finnish accomplice. For the most part, it seemed best to render Karvonen in shades of black and white; this is such a complicated story that it needed a storybook villain to drive the action. But I found that giving him a moment of hesitation in Chapter 48, as he decides whether or not to kill the young woman who has given him her trust, paid off on multiple levels, which is always a sign that you’re on the right track. And perhaps it’s not surprising that such a late change of heart ultimately leads to his downfall…

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2014 at 10:05 am

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