Toilets in the Road, and a thought about Fictional Characters

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.

14 Replies to “Toilets in the Road, and a thought about Fictional Characters”

  1. I think a toilet in the road is like a fork in the road, where neither choice is appealing. Like a Catch-22 that catches ones and twos (sorry).

    As a writer, I almost take this to be a challenge.

  2. Kevin, you’ve got a good point. But, I definitely know what that says about *my* character motivations (what’s a nicer way to say “control freak”?). I just wish I knew what that guy was thinking…

    Gordon, I don’t know if that’s a forgivable pun. 😉

  3. Kelly I would argue that the value of a specific scene is determined by each author and story together. I am a strong believer in the story guiding the author as much as the author writing the story. If you go in for “truth is stranger than fiction” then the (literary?) value of the toilet in the middle of the sidewalk simply has not become apparent at this point in time, but does in fact exist.

    Also, couldn’t one call county health services or some such to complain about the obvious bio-hazard? It’s just sick and wrong! And bizarre!

  4. it’s true, damn humans and their random actions! 🙂

    This post reminds me of the problem I have with Sherlock Holmes.
    so someone has chalk on their coat? it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. People do things for no reason, and things don’t add up.

    I enjoyed this post, thanks.

  5. Kevin, you make a good point, but I think we have to be aware of those red herrings–nobody likes to get to the end of the book and wonder “what the heck was that toilet about?” I put up with that to a certain degree from Murakami or from DF Wallace, because they do it so well, but I think as writers we have to be chary of those loose ends. I wouldn’t want someone to read my work and be reminded of that disappointing LOST finale!

    iquitelikethat, Sherlock Holmes didn’t occur to me at first, but that’s a perfect example! Darned humans. 🙂

  6. I don’t think I believe that people do things for no reason. In fiction, we create characters that we know very well. And as we read fiction, we are introduced to the character by the writer and we learn to know the character that way.
    Our neighbors we may not get to know at all, or very little, even though we live right next to them.

  7. Etta, that’s true–I definitely don’t know this guy at all, so I can’t know if there was some coherent motivation there. Maybe I should modify my position: people do things for reasons, but perhaps not always with purpose?

  8. I used to watch Judge Judy quite a bit. I liked the way she handled her cases, more professional and not at all like the 101 other Hollywood performance-type court room shows. But one thing Judge Judy said quite often that I didn’t agree with was: If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true. I too see many toilets on the side of the road literally and figuratively and the stories behind those fixtures don’t always make sense in my mind…but there’s no doubt they are truly there.

  9. Joe, I assure you–I’m trying! If you know anyone who wants to buy a house with a toilet out front…

    Aundria–thanks for this; I too would have to disagree Judge Judy. Many true things don’t make sense. Good people get hurt, bad people prosper. People hurt each other and trash the planet that’s their home. Maybe what I want is to impose order (*my* order!) on things.

  10. ‘impose my order on things’ – don’t we all, Kelly, don’t we all 😉

  11. I’m sure you’re right – it’s just a toilet in the road. I saw a quote the other day from a writer – can’t bring the name or the exact quote to mind – saying that in fiction, everything has to make sense. In real life, it never does.

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