Posts Tagged ‘Eternal Empire commentary’
How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.
It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.
I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world. Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.
What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…
Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.
Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.
Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.
Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…
Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)
All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:
In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.
Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.
Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…
I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but I have a hunch that most professional writers rarely go back to reread their own work. In an interview with The Paris Review, the novelist François Mauriac puts his finger on why revisiting a published story can be such an unpleasant experience:
I only reread my books when I have to in correcting proofs. The publication of my complete works condemned me to this; it is as painful as rereading old letters. It is thus that death emerges from abstraction, thus we touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.
The more you unpack this statement, the more insightful it becomes. Reading one of your published stories is like reading an old letter in several ways: it confronts you with the image of yourself when you were younger, it makes your mistakes more visible in hindsight, and it shows you how insidiously the present has turned into the dead past. It’s the fossilized remnant of a process that used to be alive, and as soon as a work of art is locked into its final form, you see all kinds of problems with it. This isn’t necessarily because you could do any better now, but because a story on the page always seems less interesting than it did in your head. When you’re experiencing the work of other writers, you rarely dwell on how else it might have been done, but when you’re reading your own stuff, it’s hard to think about anything else.
This kind of estrangement from a work to which you devoted so much time and energy is unbearably sad—or it would be, if the writer didn’t immediately move on to the next thing. And it explains why the rare story that you can enjoy for its own sake becomes so precious. Usually, it’s something that came fairly easily, as if you were simply transcribing a moment of inspiration that descended from somewhere higher up, or rose from the depths of the subconscious. Isaac Asimov called it “writing over my head,” saying: “I occasionally write better than I ordinarily do…When I reread one of these stories or passages, I find it hard to believe that I wrote it, and I wish ardently that I could write like that all the time.” (Asimov said that he cried whenever he reread the ending of his own story “The Ugly Little Boy.”) Alternatively, you can feel safely detached from one of your own works if you were operating as an artist for hire, without much of a personal stake in the result, but did your job at a high level of technical proficiency. Steven Spielberg has said that the only one of his movies that he can watch with his kids as if he hadn’t directed it, rather than remembering what it was like on the set each day, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see why: it was George Lucas’s baby, and what Spielberg brought to the project was a matchless eye and a useful degree of distance from the material. And I’m not surprised that the result delights him as much as it does me.
When it comes to my own work, there’s almost nothing that I can read now for my own pleasure. Occasionally, like Mauriac, I’ll need to correct page proofs, and I always have to gather my courage a bit: you’re strictly limited in the number of changes you can make, and you can’t imperceptibly massage the text in the way you can when you’re fiddling with a draft in Word. Reviewing proofs shortly after you’ve finished a story is even wore than reading an old letter—it’s like encountering an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend soon after a breakup, when you realize that you’ll never be able to take back what happened. (Not every writer feels this way, and some, like James Joyce, notoriously rewrote entire sections of the manuscript in galley form. But I’ve always assumed that making extensive changes at this stage will only introduce unforeseen complications, so I try to restrict myself to altering a word or a punctuation mark here and there.) Even after my feelings have cooled and a story sits on the shelf like a dead thing, it’s hard for me to look at it again: it’s like being confronted with your irrevocable life choices all at once. And if I had to make a list of the bits and pieces of my fiction that I wouldn’t mind reading again, it represents a tiny slice of the whole: maybe “The Boneless One,” most of “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” the second half of “Ernesto,” the closing summation in The Icon Thief, and the plane crash and tunnel chase in City of Exiles. That’s about it.
In most of these cases, I was writing over my head, either because I was following up on a good idea that seemed to come out of nowhere, or because I was able to subordinate myself to the mechanics of a plot that I’d already set in motion. And of all the pages I’ve published, Chapter 58 of Eternal Empire might be my favorite—which is to say, if you forced me to pick something to read again, it’s the one I’d probably chose. It isn’t the most complex or difficult thing I’ve written: once I knew that Wolfe and Ilya would team up to take down a dacha full of gangsters and save Maddy, it was mostly just a matter of not screwing it up. But I had a great time writing it, and I still have a good time reading the result. The confluence of names I mentioned above is part of the reason why: it’s one of the few occasions when I felt that I was writing fanfic for my own creations, not because I was indulging myself, but because it combined characters for a payoff that I never would have imagined when I wrote the first book in the series. It’s obviously indebted to scenes like the shootout at the Victory Motel in both the novel and the film versions of L.A. Confidential, and if Wolfe at the climax of City of Exiles slipped into the Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, she’s closer here to the Starling of Hannibal. It’s the finest moment for my favorite character in the trilogy, which is reason enough for me to like it. Throughout this entire author’s commentary, I’d been looking forward to writing about it, but now that I’m here, I find that I don’t have much to say except that I think it’s pretty damned good. And I’m going back to read it again now…
Few creative choices are so central to the writing process as the selection of a point of view, but it’s often a haphazard, instinctive decision. Unless you’re working in an overtly experimental mode, you’re usually stuck with the first or third person, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It helps to visualize your set of options as a scatter plot, with the dots growing denser around two blobs that we call the first- and third-person point of view—although the boundaries are fuzzy, and there’s a wide range of possibilities within each category. When a writer begins a story, he or she usually selects a point of view from the start, but it’s only in the act of writing itself that the style settles into a particular spot on the spectrum, which can be further refined at the revision stage. The first person is slightly more limited in scope, which is why an author like Henry James, who called it “the darkest abyss of romance,” could claim that it was inherently unsuited to the novel. But it clearly has its uses, and there are even signs that genre readers have come to prefer it. It opens up delicious possibilities for unreliable narrators, who threaten to become a cliché in themselves, and the intimacy that it creates, even if it’s an illusion, can encourage a greater identification with the protagonist. (Hence the fact that the Nancy Drew series switched from the third person to the first about a decade ago, which feels like a sign of the times.)
I made the choice long ago to write my fiction in the third person, and it has remained pretty much in place for everything I’ve published, for both short stories and novels. (The one exception is my story “Ernesto,” which is set to be reprinted soon by Lightspeed: I gave it a first-person narrator as an homage to Holmes and Watson and to discourage me from attempting a bad imitation of Hemingway.) By design, it’s a detached style: I never dip into interior monologue, and even strong emotions are described as objectively as possible. For the most part, I’m comfortable with this decision, although I’m also conscious of its limitations. As far as I can recall, I arrived at it as a form of constraint to keep certain unwanted tendencies in check: these novels are violent and sometimes implausible, and I developed a slightly chilly voice that I thought would prevent the action from becoming unduly hysterical or going out of control. I wanted it to be objective, like a camera, so that the reader would be moved or excited by events, rather than by the manner in which they were related. Looking back, though, I sometimes wish that I’d modified my approach to give me the option of going deeper into the protagonist’s thoughts when necessary, as Thomas Harris sometimes does. By keeping my characters at arm’s length, I’ve limited the kinds of stories I can tell, and while I don’t mind staying within that range, it also means that I didn’t devote time to developing skills that might be useful now.
That said, I still prefer the third person over the first, and I especially like how it can be imperceptibly nudged in one direction or another to suit the demands of the story. This comes in handy when you’re writing what amounts, in places, to a mystery novel. When you’re working in the first person, it can be hard to conceal information from the reader without it feeling like a gimmick or a cheat—although a few authors, like Agatha Christie, have pulled it off brilliantly. The third person allows you to pull back or zoom in as necessary to manage the reader’s access to the plot, and when you’re working in an omniscient mode that allows you to move between characters at will, you can even cut away entirely. These tricks have been baked into the third person as we’ve come to accept it, so a reader, ideally, will accept such shifts without thinking. (It’s possible to take this kind of switching too far, of course, which is why I try to stick with a single point of view per chapter, and I’m never entirely happy with my attempts to cycle between characters within a single scene.) When an author’s style is inherently objective, we aren’t likely to notice if it retreats or advances a little, any more than it registers when a movie cuts from a medium long shot to a medium shot. And if I’ve remained faithful to that style, it’s largely because it’s more flexible than it seems, and its gradations don’t tend to call attention to themselves.
There’s a good functional example of this in Chapter 56 of Eternal Empire. The first two pages are unusual in that they’re effectively told from nobody’s point of view: they relate a series of events—the explosion of the shadow boat, the movements of reporters, the arrival of the evacuees on shore, and the withdrawal of three unidentified figures to a distant part of the quay—as if recounting them in a news dispatch. (In fact, this is literally what is happening: a big chunk of the section is described as if it were being seen by a viewer on a newscast. If I repeatedly mention the camera crews, it’s to provide an artificial viewpoint through which to narrate the action. The lack of a central character is disguised because a camera has taken its place, which isn’t a tactic that can be extended indefinitely, but it works well enough to get me to the second page.) The reason is obvious: I don’t want to reveal that the three men who have detached themselves from the crowd are Orlov, Ilya, and Tarkovsky, whose fate up to this point has been left up in the air. This wouldn’t work at all in the first person, and if it works here, it’s because I’ve established a style that allows, when the plot calls for it, for the removal of the characters entirely. Very little of this was conscious, but it was all built on a choice of tone that I made two novels earlier, on the hunch that it would lend itself to the kind of story I wanted to tell. A paragraph or two later, we’re back in Ilya’s head. And if I’ve pulled it off properly, the reader should never notice that we left it at all…
In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:
The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.
And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.
Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:
So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.
One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)
So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…