Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘City of Exiles commentary

“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

“This, above all else, had saved his life…”

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"At St. Pancras Hospital..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 53. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve noted elsewhere that I have mixed feelings about the increasing willingness among television shows to abruptly kill off their characters. On the one hand, it discourages audience complacency and raises the stakes if we feel that anyone could die at any moment; on the other, it encourages a kind of all or nothing approach to writing stories, and even a sort of laziness. Ninety percent of the time, a show can coast along on fairly conventional storytelling—as Game of Thrones sometimes does—before somebody gets beheaded or shoved in front of a subway train. But it would have been better, or at least more interesting, to create tension and suspense while those characters were sill alive. Major deaths should be honestly earned, not just a way to keep the audience awake. At least Game of Thrones knows how to milk such moments for all they’re worth; with a show like The Vampire Diaries, diminishing returns quickly set in when characters are dispatched in every other episode. It cheapens the value of life and personality, and it starts to feel questionable on both narrative and ethical levels.

Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself, and the way certain character deaths have been incorporated into my novels testify both to how effective and to how arbitrary this kind of device can be. Ethan’s death in The Icon Thief gets a pass: it’s a striking scene that propels the last third of the story forward, and although it works in terms of momentary shock value, its repercussions continue to define the series until the final book. (The fact that it was a late addition to the story—indeed, it was one of the last things I wrote—hasn’t kept it from feeling inevitable now.) The corresponding scene in City of Exiles, which echoes its predecessor in a lot of ways, is a little harder to defend. It’s a nice, tricky chapter, and I’m still proud of the reversal it pulls, but it feels a bit more like a gimmick, especially because its consequences don’t fully play out until the following novel. From a structural point of view, it works, and it provides a necessary jolt of energy to the story at the right place, but it’s not that far removed from the way a show like 24 will throw in a surprise betrayal when the audience’s attention starts to wander.

"This, above all else, had saved his life..."

Looking back, I have a feeling that my own uneasiness over this moment—as well as the high body count of the novel as a whole—may have led me to spare another character’s life. Toward the end of the process, there was a lot of talk about whether I should kill off Powell. After reading the first draft, my agent was openly in favor of it, and it’s true that things don’t look particularly good for Powell at this point: realistically speaking, it’s hard to imagine that anyone on that airplane could have survived. Much earlier, I’d even toyed with the idea of killing Powell at the end of Part I, which would have made Wolfe’s journey all the more urgent. Between these two possibilities, the latter seemed much more preferable. A death at the conclusion of the novel wouldn’t have advanced the narrative in any particular fashion; we’re only a few pages from the end anyway, and if the stakes aren’t clear by now, there’s no point in trying to heighten them in retrospect. Killing him earlier would have served a clearer dramatic purpose, but I also would have lost his far more wrenching scene on the plane, which I don’t think would have been nearly as strong without him at its center.

In the end, I let him live, though badly hurt, for a number of different reasons. At the time, I thought that I wanted to preserve the duo of Powell and Wolfe for a potential third novel, although as it turned out, they don’t spend a lot of time together in Eternal Empire, and his role could conceivably have been filled by somebody else. Powell also benefited from my impulse to pull back on the death toll of plane crash: I didn’t want to kill off Chigorin, mostly because he was transparently based on a real person whose imagined demise I didn’t much feel like exploiting, so most of the other passengers ended up being protected by his character shield. Most of all, I thought that keeping Powell alive would restore a necessary degree of balance to the ending. City of Exiles concludes on something of a down note: Ilya is still in prison, Karvonen’s handler is still at large, and Wolfe still doesn’t know—although the reader does—that the traitor in her organization is someone close to her own heart. Killing off Powell would have left the situation feeling even more hopeless, so I spared him. If this all sounds a little cold and calculated, well, maybe it was. Powell might not have made it, but he escaped thanks to luck, impersonal considerations, and a moment of mercy from the universe. And that’s true of all of us at times…

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2014 at 9:22 am

“She had entered an underground labyrinth…”

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"She had entered an underground labyrinth..."

Note: This post is the fifty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 52. You can read the earlier installments here

The problem with writing the high points of any novel is that they’re always going to seem vaguely familiar. Authors have been working out solutions to the same handful of scenes—the chase, the game of cat and mouse, the final showdown—for centuries, and even in otherwise forgettable works, these are the moments we tend to remember. As a result, our heads are populated with images and tropes from countless previous thrillers, and after a while, they feel as if they’re ringing variations on the same themes. (This is why I find myself tuning out more and more during movie action sequences, especially the kind that rely on digital effects, as in the last act of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie I loved for its first hour before finding myself increasingly detached.) Every now and then, we’re presented with a set piece that gives us something we genuinely haven’t seen before: by now, it’s a cliché in its own right, but I still remember being exhilarated by the ending of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, with the villain in one room, the target in the other, and the shafts of light pouring through the bullet holes in the wall. And aside from that rare kind of inspiration, writers are left to express their personalities with little touches in big scenes.

In my own work, I’ve tried to make each action scene as distinctive as possible while still moving fluently within the beats of the genre. There’s a kind of pleasure in seeing a writer deploy familiar elements in an expert fashion, and I’m generally pleased by my efforts in that direction. Many rely on a single large idea or setting to force the action into a more unusual shape. The climax of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy breaks into the Étant Donnés installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while being unknowingly stalked by a killer, still strikes me as a neat idea, and most of the story was designed to bring her, and us, to that exact moment. In Eternal Empire, which I feel has the best action writing of the entire series, the logic of each turning point was determined by a distinctive setting: the London riots, a wedding, a sinking yacht. And you can see a progression there, as I had to widen the net ever further to make the material seem fresh. After only three novels, it felt increasingly hard to stage scenes like this in ways I hadn’t done already, which is part of the reason I’ve tried to move in other directions in my writing. Stick long enough to any one mode, and you inevitably start to repeat yourself.

"The silence deepened..."

City of Exiles feels like a transitional novel in more ways than one. The action here is still relatively grounded: if some of the big sequences in Eternal Empire have a cast of hundreds, this story keeps it intimate and intense, even when the stakes are enormous. (Subconsciously, I may have also had the arc of the overall series in mind: I confined the most wrenching moment in the story to a private plane because I knew I had a megayacht on the horizon.) It was also my first chance to really play with the conventions of a certain kind of crime procedural. Law enforcement officers like Wolfe and Powell occupy an important supporting role in The Icon Thief, but that story was primarily about an ordinary woman who couldn’t be expected to carry a shootout or car chase. City of Exiles is in some respects a more conventional novel—although still undeniably peculiar—and it allowed me to indulge in correspondingly straightforward action. Much of the novel reflects the experiences of a writer who has suddenly been given a new set of toys, and I relished the chance to write about SWAT teams, surveillance, and the exchange of fire in close quarters between two antagonists who are equally armed, proficient, and desperate.

That’s particularly true of the climax, which occupies Chapter 57, the longest single chapter of the novel. Even if the reader isn’t clued in by the rhythms of the story itself or the dwindling number of pages, there are plenty of structural signs that we’re nearing the end: unlike most chapters, which stick to a single character’s perspective, it switches three times between points of view, moving from Karvonen to Wolfe and back again. I try to save this kind of crosscutting for extended action scenes that couldn’t be divided up without sacrificing momentum, and I’d like to think that the reader picks up on this—the scene starts fast and keeps going, as if we’re rushing headlong to a decisive moment. Since this is a novel with multiple echoes, intentional and otherwise, of The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps it’s inevitable that it would end in a similar way, and the chapter’s final page, in particular, owes a lot to Harris. But I still love the result, even now, when my feelings as the novel as a whole are still evolving. There are times when I think City of Exiles it the best novel in the series, and others when I suspect it may be the weakest. Certainly its seams show a little more than in its predecessor or successor. But whenever I think of it as my best, it’s because of scenes like this, with the familiar and the unexpected colliding in one last confrontation in the dark…

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2014 at 9:05 am

“This is where he wanted to go…”

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"Rounding a corner..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here

Years ago, I served as an alternate juror in a civil case in Brooklyn. The details of the lawsuit don’t really matter—it involved a patient alleging malpractice, ultimately without success, after undergoing cataract surgery—and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to render a verdict. I took good notes, though, on the assumption that the experience might be useful for a story one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but one detail still sticks with me. Part of the case hinged on what the doctor had written in the patient’s file, so at strategic moments in the proceedings, the lawyer for the plaintiff would put an enormous reproduction of the relevant page on an easel, inviting us to look closely at some marginal note in an illegible doctor’s scrawl. And what struck me was the fact that records like this are kept for every patient, filling cabinets and boxes in every doctor’s office in the country. Most end up filed away forever. But every now and then, a trial or insurance settlement will depend on detail from a past case, so one dusty file will be promoted out of storage and blown up to huge proportions. It’s a kind of apotheosis, the moment when an ordinary document turns into a key piece of evidence, and we’re asked to study it as closely as a sacred text.

You see the same phenomenon whenever a mass of information promises to yield one small, crucial clue. Conspiracy theorists pore over every scrap of paper connected to events like the Kennedy assassination, until what might otherwise be a routine report or standard form acquires a sinister significance. And writers—who differ from conspiracy theorists mostly in the fact that they’re aware that what they’re doing is fictional—often find themselves up to the knees in a similar process. When you’re writing a novel that requires any amount of research, you find yourself collecting whole shelves of material, but in practice, you find that a critical plot point hinges on a little morsel that you gathered without understanding its full importance. You’ll be trying to map out a scene, for instance, and realize that it has to take place in a particular corner of a building that you’ve never seen before, or that you visited months ago and have mostly forgotten. When that happens, you go back over your notes and sketches, look up photographs, stare at maps, and hope to find the tiny bit of data you need, which often turns on a few blurry pictures that you can barely see.

"This is where he wanted to go..."

I often found myself staring at images like this. When I was writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that the action of the last chapter depended on a detailed knowledge of the interior of Étant Donnés, the enigmatic work by Marcel Duchamp that was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death. Since I couldn’t easily get inside that room myself, I was forced to depend on the sources I had, shelling out ninety dollars for a copy of Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions and going over the illustrations until I had a pretty good idea of what my character would find. (Just before the novel was complete, Michael R. Taylor published his definitive study of Étant Donnés, which had much better pictures. It was too late for it to influence the story itself, but it allowed me to correct a number of small errors.) Similarly, in City of Exiles, my description of the London Chess Classic was based on a trove of pictures from the tournament’s official website, which I used to clarify my descriptions, the layout of the building, and the logic of the ensuing chase scene. And I don’t think the photographer in question ever imagined that those images would be used for that purpose.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to verify everything firsthand, and I’ve tried to do my own location research whenever possible. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of looking at a scene through a very narrow window. You can’t range freely through the world; the maneuvers you make are constrained by the evidence you have at hand, which forces you to focus and scrutinize every detail for possible use or meaning. I knew, for example, that the ending of City of Exiles would take place in the network of tunnels under Helsinki, which was something I couldn’t easily visit. All I had, in the end, were a handful of pictures and a video that offered a few tantalizing glimpses of the interior, amounting to no more than a few seconds. From those fragments, I was able to build the sequence that starts here, in Chapter 51, as Wolfe arrives at the data center that provides an access point to the tunnels. Making it plausible involved going through the footage I had inch by inch, pausing it repeatedly to figure out the geography and how to describe what I was actually seeing. Mistakes undoubtedly crept in, and I’m sure I would have benefited from walking those tunnels myself. But as it stood, I had no choice but to put together the pieces I had, put my characters inside, and see what happened when they met…

“He took in his surroundings…”

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"He took in his surroundings..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the few really useful tricks I’ve picked up as a writer is that if you don’t know what happens in a particular scene, try giving it a location. There’s a book on the movies—I think it’s Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title, but it could also be Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns—that describes a comedian walking onto a standing set and immediately coming up with bits of business involving the furniture and props on hand, and a similar process seems to operate in fiction. When you’re inventing a sequence from scratch, whether it’s a chase scene or a quiet interaction between two characters, you’re initially handicapped because the setting in which it occurs is a blank stage. If you can assign it a location, even a relatively arbitrary one, the layout of the surroundings quickly suggests ideas for movement, action, and rhythm, or what a stage director would call blocking. And although a novelist can design a fictional location in any way he likes, in practice, it’s best if the place involved is a real one with concrete physical constraints.

This is part of the reason why so many authors enjoy drawing maps. In fantasy fiction, a map of the territory often precedes the writing of the story itself, both because worldbuilding is a fun pursuit—even without a narrative to support it—and because the landmarks can impose their own kind of logic. (There’s an entire book, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, devoted to teasing out the parallels between cartographic and narrative thinking, and it’s worth a read.) Robert Louis Stevenson went so far as to recommend mapmaking to writers of all kinds:

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers.

"He forced himself to think..."

The value of maps may be less obvious for a novel like City of Exiles, but in practice, they turned out to be absolutely crucial. Much of suspense fiction, as I’ve noted before, consists of laying down an intensely detailed stratum of “realism” that allows the writer to get away with greater imaginative leaps, and that was especially the case here: the plot hinges on a series of implausible events that work only if they’ve been grounded in what seems like some version of the real world. Location research played an important role here, and the trip to London I took paid dividends in such scenes as Karvonen’s first hit and the chase at the London Chess Classic. These are scenes in which real locations dictated much the action, and I don’t think I could have invented anything nearly as convincing if I hadn’t, as Stevenson says, walked every foot and learned every milestone. And even when I wasn’t able to check out a location firsthand, I still relied on maps and landmarks, arguably to an even greater extent, since it meant that I had to plot out complicated action from an armchair.

In Chapter 50, for example, the logic of the story hinged on a solution to a specific series of geographical problems. Karvonen is driving through a snowstorm in Helsinki, heading for the passenger harbor, when he’s forced to make a detour because of a traffic accident. Along the way, he’s stopped by a police van, and in order to avoid being arrested, he shoots and kills the officer. The crime has to be witnessed, forcing him to abandon his car, but he still has to be able to slip away and head for the next place in his itinerary, the network of tunnels under the city that I knew from the beginning would be the setting for my climax. After poring over Google Maps for most of an afternoon, I finally ended up with a location that worked, near the park by Uspenski Cathedral. (Among other things, it allowed me to conveniently interpose a canal between Karvonen and the onlookers to the shooting, who could witness it without being able to respond in time.) If you read the chapter carefully, you’ll see that every beat was suggested or determined by the geography I had to follow. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. And it wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t had a map…

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

“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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