I’m taking a little break from my reading-around exercise this Monday, though not because I’m not reading. I’ve just started on Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s such a bizarre novel I’m not sure what to make of it just yet. I’m also re-reading a great favorite of mine Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and thinking about how to narrow down a pool of juicy craft techniques to learn from that unusual, rich book.
Today, instead of digging into fiction, I find myself nagged by a question about fiction at large. When we write characters, we give them complex motivations for their actions–no word out of place, no action random or without something at stake. When we make our characters act and react to outside forces compellingly, are we really just trying to tell ourselves that there’s an ontology to everything?
Character-driven fiction is almost entirely a motivation game: Doc in Cannery Row is motivated by his search for and appreciation of beauty. Gatsby’s god-like imagination will always clash with the cold light of reality. Mr. Ryder in The Unconsoled is is trapped between his failed memory and the desire to save face. What makes each of these characters so real to us is his responsibility to his own inner law, to his closed system of cause and effect.
So why don’t real people work this way? Lately I see more and more evidence that people do things for entirely inscrutable purposes. An example: my neighbor recently put a toilet–yep, the whole thing–out in the sidewalk in front of my home. I thought–hoped–the Maytag man would swoop in, cart the old one off and install a new one in this guy’s place. But now it’s day four, and the filthy, used thing is still sitting in the road. Eventually I confronted the guy, reminding him that it’s illegal to a) store toilets outside, and b) block the public right of way with said toilet. He explained to me that this was the perfect place to leave bathroom fixtures, because he was moving to Bosnia.
I’m going to pause just a moment and see whether anyone else can figure this out.
No? Well, me neither. In no novel could “I’m moving to Bosnia” be a rational explanation for removing a toilet from a rented home and then putting it in the sidewalk outside of someone else’s house (I’m still not sure how to get rid of the thing). If someone put this scene in a short story or novel, that writer’s workshop compatriots would likely say “I don’t find this believable,” “what’s at stake here?” or “I don’t see evidence of motivation” or “where does the neighbor come from? She has nothing to do with the story.” And they’d be right–there’s absolutely no reason for this scene. But people do weird, inscrutable things all the time, and subject incidental people to their actions. That’s life. Real life, not fictional life.
More and more, I’m convinced we read and write fiction to create the kinds of satisfying narratives real life seems to lack. We write our versions of the universe, in which people are motivated by love, vengeance, status or even a misguided attempt to do the right thing. In fiction, a toilet in the road is never just a toilet in the road. But in life? I suspect it is.