Thursday, August 11, 2011

People and Their Work

There are two trends in fiction that make me go cross-eyed with frustration as a reader. Therefore, I try to avoid falling into the same trap as a writer.

One of the trends is especially prevalent in the cozy mystery, and it’s what I call the “gimmick” mystery. The protagonist cooks or quilts or restores houses or knits or loves wine or reads tarot cards or lives with a ghost or something, and everything in the book is defined by what she does. There’s no depth to the character development, or the ability of the character to have an interest in more than one thing, which rings false. The stories are pretty much all the same, and the characters make the same mistakes without learning from them, and it feels like a global replace was used for the gimmick, and maybe a few paragraphs rearranged to suit the gimmick.

Usually, these books glut the market because an author has written a book where the character has a passion for something, and the author has written it very well. Because that original author has done it so well, a few dozen others scramble to join the party, often in pale imitation. They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Sometimes several unique authors can break out exceptional characters and exceptional writing with the same gimmick, but usually you get a flurry of derivative writing until the next hot gimmick-of-the-moment comes through and the herd chases that rainbow in hopes of publishing gold.

Or, the books rush to the other extreme, and the character suddenly doesn’t have anything else in her life except the plot of the book. The author tells us the character has a job, a career, that she goes to work, but we never actually experience her working. It could be Anyjob in Anytown, not Smith & Weiss Realty in Mt. Kisco, New York, where she has to wear pantyhose and a demure suit, when she’d rather be in a jeans and tank top. And how a person behaves at work gives us a lot of information about the character.

Either extreme break my suspension of disbelief. We all have busy lives. Part of the reason we read fiction is to have a break from our own busy lives and to enter someone else’s, learning how they cope. If all they have to worry about is one thing (unless they’re time traveling or something), I get frustrated. I’m constantly juggling writing projects, teaching, yoga, meditation, the garden, the cats, my family, keeping old friends, making new friends in my own community, volunteer work, following new interests. I want the characters with whom I interact on the page to do the same. I want to see how the cope, to see if I’ve found a kindred spirit or can sigh and relate, and be better at it than I am.

I want characters to have rich lives. Even a character who lives in isolation can have a rich inner life. I want a sense that they had lives before the events of the book began, and that life goes on after the book ends (whether the characters are still alive or not). If they’re at a stalemate in their lives, I want to know why I’m with them at this moment. Why is this a pivotal point in their existence?

What we do, what we’re interested in, and how we relate (or don’t) relate to the world around us says a lot about us. The way characters relate tells us a lot about them. I spent over twenty years working backstage in theatre, television, and film. It’s a very consuming life, and you have to love it and make a lot of sacrifices to be a part of it. You’re working nights, weekends, holidays -- when others come out to play. However, YOU are making it possible for them to play. Relationships backstage evolve very differently than office relationships, and there’s a level of intensity and loyalty even among people who don’t always get along, and who, in an office situation, would avoid each other. People who work backstage relate to each other differently than people do in other professions. Rarely is that depicted in fiction -- it’s usually about bitchy cliches. When writing ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, I wanted to show the joy and passion people working backstage have for their work, even on the rough days!

If we hate the job we’re in, that’s also going to affect us in a different way. Why do we stay? What fears keep us from doing what we love? What dreams have we given up, and how do those continue to wound us? A sense of misplaced loyalty? Fear of unemployment? Family demands? Do we daydream through the day, not really paying attention to it, then rush home to do what we love? Again, if a character is in this type of situation, we learn a lot about the character by the relationship to work. We spent forty or more hours per week at work -- that’s a huge chunk of our lives. Think about how it affects you, your relationships, your conversations. Would your characters also be affected?

You don’t want to pull too much focus from the plot and story, but so much of the character can be told in terms of their workday, their skill level, and those work relationships that it’s a shame when that area of a character’s life is ignored or trivialized.

--Annabel Aidan is a full-time writer and publishes under a half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction. ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT is available from Champagne Books. Her blog (under the Devon Ellington name) is Ink in My Coffee and her webpage is here.


Lori said...

Super post. You've echoed every reason why I can't get into mainstream fiction at times. It's especially hard after reading the masters, such as Toni Morrison, who builds lives around her characters. They work, they ache, they laugh, they feel, they interact with others. They ARE the story, not living in the story. To me, that's so much more real than a mystery wrapped in a new shell.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Well put, Annabel and Lori. It's so important that our characters even in a cozy mystery like my next release in Oct., have real, believable lives. (Backstory)

We spend almost 1/3rd of our time at work. It isn't just a place. Our careers define our decision-making. The choices our characters will make are based on how they interact and react all 24 hours of their fictional days.
Good post.

Debra Young said...

Excellent post. Giving characters real lives adds depth and authenticity to their creation, and makes for a "sink into the book" reading experience. d:)