Character Motivation

Just type “character motivation” into Google and you will find hundreds of thousands of hits, most of them having to do with how to create (or not to create) motivations for you fictional characters. Clearly, a fictional character needs some kind of motivation or the story gets nowhere. (There are some exceptions of course. In The Lady From Shanghai, it is never made clear what the main character played by Orson Wells really wants. It’s still a great movie, but the studio execs hated it and a great chunk of the film ended up on the editing room floor to be lost forever.)

You will also find out very soon that a lot of readers and viewers are tired of the old tropes that tend to become character motivations.

So before we start talking about fictional character motivations, let’s step back a moment and think about your own motivations. Why do want to write a book? You might say that you are not writing for the money, but in the back of every writer’s mind is the possibility of turning out a blockbusting best seller, a movie deal, and a millionaire status, however remote the possibility. So let’s just say, for the argument’s sake, that you are in it for the money, even just a little bit. The reality is that you will probably make more money if you invested your time and energy in a more mundane endeavor, like selling car batteries or LAN cables. There is a stable demand for car batteries and an ever growing demand for LAN cables. There is no need to create your merchandise from scratch, no need to create a synopsis or explain the concept, and no need to give a cut to the agent. You only need to find a suitable market and a vacuum in the competition. If you can dominate a sizable slice of the humongous pie, you could become a millionaire and go into early retirement.

But few, if any, people ever say that their dream for the future is to make their fortune selling car batteries or LAN cables. They want to build cars or write software applications. There seems to be a mistaken belief that the only way to win a fortune is to do something creative and sell your own creation. But in fact, if you gather a large number of non-Fortune-list millionaires, you will find that a large majority of them made their fortune selling real estate, drilling equipment, shipping containers, construction machines, and a myriad of mundane things that have little or nothing to do with creativity.

So why do you want to write? If you want to be rich, you are much more likely to become rich selling tires. But you never dream about selling tires. Why is that? Why do people dream of building the next De Lorean? Or creating the next hit app? Or making a movie? Or selling the better mouse trap?

And now that we have that little mystery cooking, let’s get back to fictional character motivation.

Why did Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, want to cook meth? Because he was dying of cancer and wanted to provide for his family, that’s why. But if that is so, why did he need to kill Gus Fring? Because he needed to survive, of course. But if that is so, why didn’t he just run? Why did he keep cooking? Why did he need to keep killing? Why did he need to become the kingpin of the drug world?

Walter White’s initial motivation was to provide for his family, but eventually his motivation changed. It was not about just money any more. It was about winning. It was about utilizing one’s talent. It was about self respect. It was about proving something.

For the same reason writers who dream about writing that best selling novel never dream of taking up a career selling car batteries, fictional characters who go after the money behave in perverse ways. At first it’s all about the money, but it’s also about the ego. And a heist that would have worked without a hitch gets ruined because somebody just couldn’t keep a reign on that ego.

In a good story, character motivations are never simple. You might think that all he wants to do is to get the girl, get the bad guy, get dad to like him, get out of his rut, or show it to the jerk. But he never has just one motivation. He has one motivation that gets side tracked by another motivation. And he would have achieved his first objective faster, safer, and with fewer setbacks if only he could keep focused on it without veering toward his second motivation. That is why the hero ditches the treasure and runs off with the girl, or the villain gloats over the protagonist instead of immediately killing him, and Walter White keeps cooking meth long after he is rich enough to support his family.

The conflict between motivation number one and motivation number two is what illuminates character development and character arcs. And this can be grasped by the realization that people are contradictory. If all you wanted to do was get rich, you don’t have to write a novel, or create software, or invent new computers, or venture into the jungle, or kill Gus Fring. Yet, perversely we do those things and it complicates matters. That is what makes a story human and interesting.

The Bedpost of Intellectualism

I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.

Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.

Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane.  Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.

This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.

Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.

Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.

Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor is not the same thing as your ordinary metaphor. An ordinary metaphor is a simile without the word “like”. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile. “Life is hell” is a metaphor. But an extended metaphor is a whole different animal all together. You can see some examples here.

For the writer, an extended metaphor is an untamed dragon whose reins are hard to control, but once mastered could grant powers of great capacity.
To show you what I mean, here is an example of what an extended metaphor can do. It is shared in a dialogue between 47-year-old Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and 22-year-old Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Rutledge) in the movie The Big Sleep.

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

The following is my favorite extended metaphor from Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” .

“Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they kept the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties. I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”

When I first read this passage, I thought it was so awesome, I just put the book down and looked at the walls for a while.
What is this metaphor about and what does it do?

First off, the imagery is vivid and clear – and yet it is surreal – like a scene from a Terry Gilliam movie. There is no such thing as a “thousand story grand hotel” or a “bank of elevators a a mile long” but the over sized hyperbole is consistent with the feeling of the endlessly rising elevator and a trip to the air ship that never seems to end. It effectively conveys the feeling of a seemingly endless summer with seemingly infinite possibilities.

And then it is vaguely sad because you travel up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets who you never actually interact with. Opportunities passed up. Summer is just a balloon bobbing in the high winds. (He uses the word “dirigible” which I hadn’t seen in decades.)

Then the dreamy sequence is brought to a shocking end with the words “snapped spine” before it is explained that it is a ” snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink” which concludes the metaphor. Dream broken.

Metaphors, at its most primitive, are instruments for explanation (big as a bear, solid as a brick) but can be used in contrast to enhance the image (devilish debonair, monstrous beauty), but an extended metaphor does not just explain or enhance what we already know.

In Chabon’s case he is explaining an emotional grasp of the summer vacation to come. It is something that cannot be seen, but something we can relate to. He presents vivid imagery to convey the feeling, but no imagery of beaches, parties, travel, or any of the things we actually expect to do during the summer. Instead he gives us the bobbing airship as a metaphor for the summer.

So what does this accomplish?

Other than the fact that it blows our minds with incredible word usage, it presents the sense of purposeless time wastefully expended like a lost weekend, and replaces that with an image we can see. And then it projects an emotion – a sort of sad wistfulness – that is not explicitly explained, but one which we can feel through the prose. Placing this metaphor in the first chapter of the book helps set the tone and atmosphere to the entire story.

The masterful part of this is that it begins with ” in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less” and then closes with ” I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.'”

Did he actually say either of these things? He did not say to his father “a bank of elevators a mile long” nor did he say “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
These are both stand-ins for the rambling, unstructured, real conversation that came out of his mouth. The two stand-ins, however, are contrasting equivalents. They are two opposite ways of saying the same thing.

What if Chabon had written:
Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: “I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.”
That would be the summary of what he actually said. But it does not serve the purpose of setting the tone for the book.
All the stuff in the middle, between “I said, more or less” and “I said”, is the trailer to the movie you are about to see. It presents vivid colors, tangible emotions, and a shocking conclusion that is more or less inevitable.

So what can we learn from this?
1. An extended metaphor has a purpose. It is not just a jumble of clever words. It has a clearly defined mission to accomplish.
2. It contains colors, shapes, sizes and things that are visible.
3. It conveys emotions that is consistent with the story.
4. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
5. It can be summarized in a non-metaphoric way.

Putting all of that together in a metaphor is a tall order. Here is my poor attempt at it:

Benji was like a horse. Not a real horse, but a movie horse. The hero in a jam whistles and his loyal horse, with nobody in the saddle, comes to the rescue, kicks the bad guys, carries away the hero and his damsel, across the plains, into the sunset, and then, maybe, above the clouds, over the rainbow, sprouting Pegasus wings and a unicorn horn until happily ever after and the credits roll. Nobody remembers the name of the horse, unless it’s a question in a game show. Then the movie you watched with a lollipop in cheek is, by chance, on a late-night re-run when you are alone drinking because the wife just left, and you finally realize the horse was the real hero, and the poor animal had long since been sent to the glue factory. And you can’t recall the name. That was Benji.

It does not quite work like Chabon’s extended metaphor even though (1) it would set the tone for a larger story, (2) contains imagery you can visualize, (3) conveys an emotion (in this case sadness), (4) has a beginning, middle, and an end, (5) and can be summarized that Benji was an unappreciated, unsung hero. What’s missing here?

What is missing is the surprise factor. It does not have “a thousand story grand hotel”, “a bank of elevators a mile long”, “moguls, spies, and starlets” and “snapped spine of a lemon wedge” working in concert to project the above five things.

An extended metaphor is a dangerous thing, because it can distract the reader from the story if it is too elaborate. We want the reader to get lost in the story, to get completely absorbed in it. And yet when everything clicks, it magically transports the reader on the back of a dragon soaring across the skies.

Narrative Voice in Science Fiction

I have no pretensions at being a science-fiction writer. When I was a little boy, almost all the stories I made up had spaceships in them, but that goes to show how little I knew about the genre. Susan Sontag called science fiction a close relative of pornography. It was to me, in a way. Just as you really do not care about the plot or story when you are reading smut, I had little interest in the human aspirations and character emotions as long as there were robots and aliens that made things go bang, boom and zoom.

After I had become acquainted with George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury, I composed very few stories that could be characterized as science fiction. There was this one time, back in the ’80s when “portable” telephones were too large to fit in brief cases, I envisioned a pocket sized communication device through which you could read messages posted from around the world. A schoolgirl mixed up in a murder asked for help through this device and not only received vital information on how to escape, but gained millions of viewers voyeuristically following her escapades. If I had committed that story to print I would have been credited for predicting Twitter.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that science fiction was not my medium. Science fiction was born from a need to expand our horizons when people stopped believing in ghosts, fairies, and angels. The original audience of Hamlet responded to the story differently because a lot of people actually believed in ghosts in Shakespeare’s time. Even when it was a stretch to suspend your disbelief about ghosts, there was a time when it was easier to entertain the possibility of Martians invading Earth, or dinosaurs surviving in the depths of the Amazon jungle. My idea that someday something like Twitter might be realized was in line with this genre. You create an adventure story just within the borderline of the believable, maybe even possible, sometime in the future.

But “science” in fiction is only speculation. It is a stand-in for ghosts, fairies, and angels that we do not believe in anymore. As such, these imaginary elements must engage our emotions in the way ghosts and angels used to. In short, Twitter doesn’t cut it.

True science fiction is hard to imagine, hard to compose, and hard to write. Not only is it highly dependent on how you “tell” (and not “show”) important plot points, but you must mask the “telling” in a stylistic smoke screen.

Here is a passage from Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Among his kind, Moon-Watcher was almost a giant. He was nearly five feet high, and though badly undernourished weighed over a hundred pounds. His hairy, muscular body was halfway between ape and man, but his head was already much nearer to man than ape. The forehead was low, and there were ridges over the eye sockets, yet he unmistakably held in his genes the promise of humanity. As he looked out upon the hostile world of the Pleistocene, there was already something in his gaze beyond the capacity of any ape. In those dark, deep-set eyes was a dawning awareness – the first intimations of an intelligence that could not possibly fulfill itself for ages yet, and might soon be extinguished forever.

All telling and no showing, it could be the script for a Discovery Channel documentary. But it also carries an authoritative, almost Biblical, voice. You can hear it in the voice of a preacher giving a sermon, or in the tone of John F. Kennedy giving a speech.

Here is a passage from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered. He almost thought he heard the motion of her hands as she walked, and the infinitely small sound now, the white stir of her face turning when she discovered she was a moment away from a man who stood in the middle of the pavement waiting.

Whether this is telling or showing is hard to tell, but it is exposition for certain. Current vogue is to cut exposition to a minimum, which is a rule that Bradbury, and many other science fiction writers, ignore with abandon. Unlike the Biblical, documentary intoning of Clark’s voice, Brandbury is more lyrical and more poetic and rambles through a 46-word sentence. It projects the voice of an American narrator; an old-timey Hollywood voice. Try reading a Bradbury short story after watching Vincent Price recite Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. You will see what I mean.

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, sounds vaguely Oriental:

Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness . . . focusing the consciousness . . .aortal dilation . . . avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness . . . to be conscious by choice . . . blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions . . . one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone . . .animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct . . . the animal destroys and does not produce . . . animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe . . . focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid . . .bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs . . . all things/cells/beings are impermanent . . . strive for flow permanence within . . .  

Is there Deepak Chopra in there somewhere? Part of this must be the reflection of 1960’s counter culture that adopted various elements from Oriental mysticism. Oddly, it seems to read best if you imagine the voice of Shakespearean actors like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen.

Phillip K. Dick exudes a much more distinctive voice. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep opens with a tense dialogue that sets both the tone and the future world stage in a distilled movie-script sort of way. The first person POV narration sounds as intimate as Phillip Marlowe’s investigation monologue.

The morning air, spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun — beclouding, belched
about him, haunting his nose; fie sniffed involuntarily the taint of death. Well, that was too strong a description for it, he decided as he made his way to the particular plot of sod which he owned along with the unduly large apartment below. The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties. Despite his lead codpiece the dust — undoubtedly — filtered in and at him, brought him daily, so long as he failed to emigrate, its little load of befouling filth. So far, medical checkups taken monthly confirmed him as a regular: a man who could reproduce within the tolerances set by law. Any month, however, the exam by the San Francisco Police Department doctors could reveal otherwise. Continually, new specials came into existence, created out of regulars by the omnipresent dust. The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: “Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours! ” Very true, Rick thought as he opened the gate to his little pasture and approached his electric sheep. But I can’t emigrate, he said to himself. Because of my job.

Voice in science fiction is very important because you face it over long stretches of intricate exposition; not just an exposition of something you can clearly see, like that of an old manor home that appears in a Dickens novel, but an exposition of a world that nobody has seen with technologies and cultures that are not yet invented.

I have stated before that it takes time and experience to develop a voice. And that is why I do not recommend science fiction to young aspiring writers, or fantasy either for that matter. Creating a suitable voice is a daunting task.

That is not to say that there are crafty sci-fi works out there that have almost no multi-paragraph expositions and cut straight to the chase. The Hunger Games comes to mind. Books like these do not depend on heavily affected voices. They are like sharks. They survive by staying in motion. As such they require a different skill set to write. Most people do not seem to categorize “speculative fiction” like The Hunger Games as science fiction, even though they follow the same tropes.

As a matter of fact, science fiction no longer seems to be defined by spaceships, aliens, and robots that go bang, boom, and zoom. It never should have been. There once was a time when Star Wars was a representative example of science fiction, but it isn’t anymore. Science fiction is not a close relative of pornography, but of fantasy. It is a fairy tale without the fairies, but substituted by something slightly more believable. We do not need robots and aliens for that.

Writing Fiction in Turbulent Times

Ever since Donald Trump was elected POTUS, politics have been distracting writers from writing. Granted that Trump would make such an awesome fictional character that it’s a shame that he is real, politics  should not distract a fiction writer from the business of creating stories. A time of political turmoil is a great time for the creation of fiction. Some very good literature was written when the world around the author was literally falling apart. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for example, was inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The book was not written until 1982 and not published until a French translation came out in 1984, but it was very much the child of the Prague Spring.

The authors of great works of literature in turbulent times often had considerable balls. Bertolt Brecht wrote the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in 1938 when it could have easily gotten him killed.

If you have seen epic China movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, you would be a little bit familiar with the tumultuous history of modern China. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 ended China’s imperial rule (though the emperor continued to reign) and created for the first time the democratic Beiyang government composed of a president, a vice president and a house of parliament.  But idealism soon gave way to infighting and power play, while hopes for an actual election became more and more distant as strongmen replaced political theorists as interim presidents. And, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, the Shangdong territory occupied by the Germans was handed over to Japan. Protests erupted around the country, unrest bred factionalism, and factionalism begat bloodshed. Although the territory was eventually returned to China in 1922, the damage was done. The Beiyang government started a slow descent into disintegration and national chaos. In the middle of all this, in 1921, when China was a train wreck in slow motion, Lu Xun published The True Story of Ah Q. Not only was the book a scathing criticism of just about everyone alive, it also broke tradition by being the first book ever to be published in vernacular Chinese. Unfortunately, it is a book that does not translate for other cultures very well. The introduction, in which the author agonizes over how to title the book, is a satire of Chinese intellectualism of the era that was unable to do anything outside the traditional box. Oddly enough, this satirical novella, that probably angered a whole spectrum of people from ivory-tower-intellectuals to semi-literate masses, was praised by none other than Mao Zedong. That does not mean that Lu Xun was hiding under the umbrella of authority. He was fluent in Japanese and he argued face to face with occupying Japanese brass during the height of WWII.

And if you want to talk about ballsy writers in turbulent times, you cannot avoid talking about Soviet dissidents. It’s pretty hard to understand what was so horrible about Doctor Zhivago that it was refused publication by the Soviet government. (After all, it was a pretty boring movie, right?) Yet Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning epic could not be published until it was smuggled out to Italy and translated into Italian. But it is not at all difficult to understand why The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was banned. It is a clearly anti-Soviet book published in the West in 1973 and it was circulated among Russians under the communist regime through underground self-publishing called samizdat. This book not only required balls to write, it took balls to read.

In North America, the Civil War inspired Gone With the Wind, but that was written in another generation. The Great Depression inspired Grapes of Wrath, which helped Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize, but has a slight taint of plagiarism about it. But among the host of great books inspired by the Great Depression, I would have to introduce The Big Money by John Dos Passos (1936) if only because it is so relevant to the materialism and avarice of the Age of Trump.

I have to mention a couple of Japanese books of course, and Japan has never had any shortage of political turmoil or defiant literature. In the 20th century alone, Japan experienced two attempted coups, two constitutions, two world wars, two economic booms, two economic busts, and two nukes. And books about every one of them. There is a long line of people who nearly or actually got themselves killed for running their mouths or wielding their pens, but among them, I have to say, Osamu Dazai really stands out. He spent most of the pre-war and mid-war period mocking the WWII militarist government and its supporters, then spent the post-war period mocking the newly minted pacifists and leftists who were too cowardly to come out during the war. After the war he wrote his seminal No Longer Human which probably inspired more suicides than any other printed matter in the history of mankind. But if you have ever seen the movie Grave of the Fireflies (which incidentally was based on another piece of literature inspired by times of turmoil), you might have a hint as to what the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII was like. The U.S. Air Force was unable to strike Japanese military installations because they were too well fortified and required direct hits to take out, which meant that American bombers would have to fly lower, within range of the accurate Japanese anti-aircraft fire. So they changed tactics and built large, high-flying bombers that could fly high above the range of Japanese guns and fighters and focused on soft targets that could be destroyed by incendiary bombs. The repeated fire bombings of Tokyo between November 1944 and August 1945 killed over 100 thousand people and displaced over a million, and remains the biggest concentrated bombing of a civilian city in history. And smack in the middle of this ten-month fire bombing campaign in April 1945, Dazai published, in Tokyo, the bizarre  short story Chikusei. This was not an obvious criticism of the government or a comment on the state of the world, but an absurdist dreamscape story a la Lewis Carroll in which a ne’er-do-well intellectual, half dreaming, turns into a crow. It reads like an Aesop parable on the futility of human ambition, pride, idealism, and despair, then suddenly takes a cork screw twist at the end and lands in resignation and acceptance of mediocrity like Salieri in Amadeus. A very strange story to write while surrounded by death and destruction.

But that does not even come close to the utter absurdity of Shichiro Fukazawa, the novelist, guitarist, and Elvis impersonator, known for the celebrated novel The Ballad of Narayama (introduced to the West in the French translation La Ballade de Narayama) published in 1956, which was twice adapted into motion pictures both of which were critically acclaimed. Not to give anything away, the story is about a remote village in samurai era Japan where tradition dictated that senior citizens of certain age must be abandoned in the mountains so their impoverished families could save on the food. The story is about the conflict of a poor farmer man who is compelled by custom to throw his aged mother away. Still with me? Four years later in 1960, times were very turbulent around the world. It was the year the U2 was shot down over Russia, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did the first televised presidential debate. It was the year before the Bay of Pigs and Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. It was also the year in which the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was ratified, insuring that American post-war occupation forces will remain on Japanese soil indefinitely and that American soldiers will remain outside the jurisdiction of Japanese law. Given that hundreds of rapes, assaults, and murders by U.S. servicemen were reported yearly, and the Japanese police were powerless to do anything about it, the ratification of the treaty was not a popular decision. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets. Hundreds of protesters and policemen were injured. Tear gas and Molotov cocktails flew across over the streets. Politicians resigned, government was in disarray, and the future looked uncertain. In the middle of that commotion, Fukazawa published Furyu Mutan, a narrative of a surreal dream in which a mob beheads the emperor, the empress, the crown prince and the crown princess. This was only a decade and a half after soldiers flew off on kamikaze missions in the name of the emperor. The shit storm this short story raised was so intense, the publisher retracted the story and never published it again. It eventually began circulating on the internet in digital form several decades later.

Speaking of the ’60s, there is a horde of books inspired by the Vietnam War. But there is also some books available in English written by Vietnamese authors to widen your perspective. But it wasn’t just the battle grounds in the jungle, but the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, the arrival of counterculture, and the largely unacknowledged influence of the ubiquitous flickering cathode-ray-tube television screen that influenced the literature of the era. The witch’s brew gave birth to the quasi-literature of New Journalism epitomized by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, and Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

All these books have one thing in common which is that they never would have been born if the world was not such a mess. So don’t get distracted by the politics around you. This is exactly the perfect time to be working on your masterpiece.

The Exponential Curve

According to legend, movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck jump started their careers by co-authoring the script for Good Will Hunting as young unknown actors and peddled it around Hollywood until they found an interested studio.

In reality, the story is a little different. Matt Damon had already appeared in 11 feature films in the 10 year preceding Good Will Hunting, and Ben Affleck had appeared in 8 films and 8 TV shows. Both had been getting acting jobs since high school, Affleck making his debut in a Burger King commercial.

We get so blinded by news stories of over-night successes that we forget almost all successful careers are exponential trajectories. They bump along scraping the runway for a very long time, then barely lifting off the surface coasting parallel to the ground a few feet in the air until almost the end of the runway,  then across the grassy field at low altitude hardly clearing the one-story rooftops outside the fence. But then, with a yank of the joystick, they climb almost vertically up into the stratosphere.

We have all seen the exponential curve in practice. Remember the classmate who claimed that he aced the exams with only three days of study? He wasn’t actually lying, he was just talking about the last three days of his exponential curve. Same thing with physical training that seem to get you zero results for the first three months.

Almost all efforts take the course of an exponential curve. A. S. Byatt published her first novel after producing a series of short stories for literary magazines. Those short stories, now mostly forgotten, had to collect mountains of rejection notices before they were published. Then, with a track record of published works under her belt, she was ready to start submitting novels, which in turn collected rejection notices until one, The Shadow of The Sun, was finally published in 1964. She kept writing novels and published three more until she produced Possessioon in 1990 which won the Booker Prize. Today, Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE, is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

All careers start by bumping along on the gravel runway. If you give up there, you will never leave the ground. If Ben Affleck had given up after the Burger King commercial, or before that at the school play level, he never would have gotten his two Academy Awards.

You just have to keep believing that the little progress you are making today will make a difference later when your career really starts picking up in that exponential curve. It is not just a matter of getting a lucky break or a chance discovery. It is the little victories you managed to pile up that tip the scales at some point when it reaches critical mass. Until then, you just have to keep tossing pebbles.


Asking the Big Question

Some genres just keep coming back. Vampires come and go. Zombies come and go. Space aliens come and go. Dystopian futures come and go. But they always come back. The reason is that these stories are about fears. And every generation has its own fears and anxieties. Every time the vampires come back, they reflect the fears of a new generation.

Every once in a decade or so, a writer will come out to represent the genre for a generation. Anne Rice did that for vampires and became the queen of the vampire genre. (Whether Stephanie Meyer overtook the throne is debatable.) Rice’s stories were about alienated people, with strong homo-erotic undertones. They were embraced by the LGBT community (then still known as the gay community) as allegorical symbols of alienation and social isolation. An unspoken element is that they were also being read by straight people who were spooked by the sudden visibility of gay people in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Stephanie Meyer fused the vampire genre with the “young adult” genre, which was a smashing success with her predominantly young readership, but did not sit well with the older generation of genre writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice. She also infused her stories with a totally new set of fears and anxieties, this time a kind of political divide that polarized the gentrified and progressive Cullens from the reactionary and race-supremacist trackers. And of course even the culturally assimilating Cullens draw the line when it comes to cross-racial romance, thereby expressing the limitations and hypocrisies of progressiveness. Thus introducing a new set of conflicts for readers to identify with.

Eventually there will be another queen of the vampire genre who will speak to a new generation of readers who will have a different set of fears and anxieties. The one thing she will not do is replicate classic vampire novels of the past. Hard core vampire fans still prefer “The Librarian” over “Twilight”. But a resurrected classic is never the voice of the next generation. Even if you are a “genre” writer (or perhaps more so because of it) you must ask big questions like “What are the dominant fears and anxieties of the coming age?” Asking big questions and thinking about them seriously comes with the territory of being a writer. Even when you are writing a YA vampire story.



Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words.

Japanese people in general are utterly incompetent English speakers. Those who can pull off a reasonable imitation of fluent English are considered exceptions. Quirky street signs and product labels written in a strange version of what appears to be English are everywhere in Japan. This strange language is often referred to as “Japanglish” or “Engrish”.

One famous example is the cartoon mascot for a line of environment-friendly home electronics. The electronics maker chose a woodpecker for the mascot. They could have called the cartoon character Woody, but “Woody the Woodpecker” was already taken, so the called it “Pecker the Woodpecker”. It did not take them very long to retract the whole thing.

There was also a chain of steak houses called “Loins”. Loins, I’m sure, referred to the choice slab of meat (top sirloin, bottom sirloin, tenderloin, and short loin), but the founders of the chain did not realize that the word also had a different meaning. After spending millions of dollars (hundreds of millions of yen, actually) promoting the brand, they abruptly decided to change the name of their restaurant chain.

The cherry blossom is Japan’s unofficial national flower next to the chrysanthemum. You might say that the chrysanthemum represents the non-martial component of the Imperial dynasty, while the cherry blossom represents the samurai spirit. The flower, which blossoms for a few days then sheds away in a blizzard of petals, has been likened to the glorious death of a soldier in battle. The masculine image is probably the reason behind why one of the first Japanese automobiles to be exported to the United States was named the Nissan Cherry. They nixed that name too.

Since these “Japanglish/Engrish” problems are so common, a Japanese writer is highly sensitive about such unintended connotations sneaking into his prose. And if you ask someone like me to critique a piece of writing, these are the mistakes I would be focusing on. Some people latch on to the misuse of commas, semi-colons, prepositions, or pronouns. You cannot expect me, a Japanese writer, not to obsess over the unintended meanings of words.

That is why I somewhat over-reacted when I found the phrase “Thatcheresque woman”. A woman who resembles Margaret Thatcher could be a whole spectrum of things, from a strong-willed leader to an entrenched ideologue. Depending on their political orientation, some people are die-hard fans of Thatcher and some people think she was a witch. You may intend the phrase “Thatcheresque woman” to mean one thing, but the reader may take away something quite different.

Another one is “like the Louvre”. The Louvre is a vast and diverse place. You can see Charlemagne’s crown, Hammurabi’s pillar, the bust of Benjamin Franklin, Egyptian sarcophagi, architecture by I. M. Pei, lots of French couples kissing, and hordes of Asian and Middle-Eastern tourists. And also some paintings. What part of the Louvre are you trying to project in your imagery? If you are going to use the Louvre as an anchor word in your story, you better think it through.

The most heinous of these offences are the code words: A “Gucci-clad” drug dealer, a stock broker “sheathed in Armani”, an artist “lounging on a Wegner chair”, a hipster with purple hair, or a spooky old man living in a “Jacobethan manor house”.

To be fair, I am guilty of the same offences. I write telegraphic descriptions like “over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties” while being well aware that the only reason the reader can visualize this is because there are lots of over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties depicted in movies and television. It’s like describing a spy in a trench coat, sunglasses and a fedora. You can see it so clearly it is almost a caricature in itself, but only because we have all seen the same visual entertainment. If someone unfamiliar with the visuals ever read this writing, they will never know what it is all about. And if people for whom these words carry different connotations read them, it could easily project a warped image in the same vein as Nissan Cherry.

If you want to write stories in the English language, you have to immerse yourself in the English speaking culture so that you will know that a name like “Nissan Cherry” will sound corny to Western ears. But you also have to take a step back and realize that using a “Jacobethan manor house” as substitute for “cue Bela Lugosi music” is simply bad writing. Just as most people outside of the Japanese culture sphere do not associate “cherry” with masculinity, a lot of people do not associate classic English architecture with vampires. (Besides, “Jacobethan” – originally a fusion of “Jacobean” and “Elizabethan” architectural styles popular in 19th century England – is lately an American euphemism for “MacMansion”.)

In this era of truncated writing, when we are expected to cut to the chase without foreplay, to ditch the expositions and get to the action, it is difficult not to rely on prefabricated imagery. The best we can do is to be conscious that we are using them. And when we use them, we have to be careful what imagery we are employing. But since one man’s cherry is another man’s cherry, it’s better to do away with cherries as much as possible.

(Read also “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language“)

The Oneiric Structure in Literature

At least a century before Aristotle penned the first known Western treatise  on literary theory in Poetics, Confucius wrote his theories on literature which, roughly translated, stated something to the effect that “what is written does not give the fullness of what is said; what is said does not give the fullness of the concepts in the mind” and thus concepts of literature must be transmitted via established imagery, or to adopt a more Western terminology, through signs.

What Confucius seemed to have been communicating since before the time of Aristotle seems to be that there is a dissociation between the signifier and the signified, a disconnect between the fabula and the syuzhet. These are structuralist and post-structuralist concepts: Ideas that Western literary theory did not come up with until the latter half of the twentieth century.

If what Confucius called the underlying concept within the mind is equivalent to the fabula, then the story told by a fallible and unreliable narrator is equivalent to the syuzhet. Now, syuzhet, which is the construction by the story teller and not the exact replica of the fabula, can come in distorted forms. This is how you can have a flashback narrative or a backwards narrative, because a syuzhet does not have to follow the chronological time line of the fabula.

Aristotle started backwards (or Confucius did, depending on your perspective) in breaking down the concept of narrative structure. He started with a three act structure, the beginning, the middle, and the end; a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution; each connected with causality. He did not realize that the causality may have been artificially contrived and juxtaposed on the fabula of the story. But this contriving and juxtaposing became the basis of the inductive method of theology throughout the Middle Ages.

Even today, when scientists try to communicate their discoveries and future directions to the public, they study classic narrative structure. There is almost a religious belief that classical narrative structure assist in more accurate communication and clearer deduction. I must admit, I spent years trying to get my colleagues in medical research to adopt this method.

However, the inductive method and the narrative structure that goes with it, can lead to some embarrassing errors in science, one of the most notable examples is the concept of dietary cholesterol as a risk factor for ischemic heart disease. You cannot argue with the story. Arterial plaque is made primarily out of cholesterol. High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream is associated with the prevalence of arterial plaque. And high cholesterol diet is associated with high levels of cholesterol in the blood stream. Tie these elements in a story line and you come to the conclusion that eating less cholesterol should result in lower incidence of heart disease. Except dietary cholesterol consumption in North America has been in steady decline for the past four decades and the incidence of heart disease is still on the rise. Meanwhile, the dietary cholesterol consumption in Japan has been steadily increasing in the past four decades which coincided with a steady increase in heart disease, though at a level still lower than in North America. Meanwhile, the French eat more cholesterol than the Americans, but suffer fewer cases of cardiac arrest.

This and many other examples illustrate the constricting nature of narrative structure and how it can confine us to a way of thinking that may or may not be accurate reflections of reality. Climate change denial actually makes a better narrative than orthodox climate change theory.

Oriental narrative structure studies started from the bottom up (or top down, depending on your perspective) and cast suspicion on all perceived causality in story. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the basic idea of a disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” in the late 19th century, but it was not until Michel Foucault adopted the concept to literary criticism that the idea really took off. It developed into a branch of study called “structuralism” (and eventually “post-structuralism“) which was later adopted into film theory.

The idea of structuralism, which started with the disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” developed into the idea that causality may or may not be the illusion of the story teller. The idea that the initial event, the middle event, and the concluding event are connected by causality – like a row of dominoes – may (or may not) be something the story teller conjured up to make the story easier to tell. The underlying reality may actually be a complex web of a million cause-effect associations, or may not be connected at all.

This realization has lead to new developments in narrative structure in literature and cinema, such as multiple timeline structures and hyperlink structures, that layer seemingly unrelated story lines and flashbacks on top of each other, some of which are connected by causality and others only by emotion.

But it did not stop there. If the syuzhet is not a reflection of the fabula, and the causalities that connect the acts can be the fabrications of the story teller, then what is to say that the fabula exists at all? When we dream in our sleep, we see the imagery but we do not register the story. There is no coherent story to identify. Therefore, the syuzhet exists without the fabula. The same applies to our childhood memories. There must have been a fabula sometime in the past, but we only see glimpses of the imagery in the deepest recesses of our minds. What we see are mere shadows of a story long lost.

In film theory, such a form where a series of images are presented without a narrative plot is called “oneiric“. Movies that adopt this form, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”, is hard to understand and (dare I say it) rather boring. Novels that adopt this meandering-of-consciousness style, such as Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto“, are not to everyone’s taste.

Still, such pieces can succeed. Not every story needs to follow the Star Wars structure, the hero’s journey, or have a chain of conflicts and resolutions in every scene. It is not as easy as fitting a story to a template, but clearly there is more to narrative structure than composing a causality-connected string of conflicts and resolutions.

Building a Writer’s Mind

There was a story on the internet about a man who tried to replicate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s diet and workout routine for a month. It was not an easy task because it involved consuming over five thousand calories in high protein foods divided over seven meals per day and pumping an ungodly amount of iron to consume and utilize those calories. Even Johnson was initially skeptical of this effort when he learned of it over Twitter, responding with smug remarks, but conceded that he was impressed with the fellow in the end, partly because the man had realistic expectations. He started out weighing 207 lb and finished at 208 lb a month later, not looking significantly different after spending $1300 on the food alone. He did say that he felt healthier after his 30-day challenge, but he stressed that you cannot build a body like an action star in a month.

In spite of all the high flying promises of ad campaigns for machines and diet drinks that will give you a Cinderella-like transformation in 30 days or less, most of us know deep down that those promises are bogus. The only way you can lose 60 pounds within two weeks is by amputating your legs. Then again, the world is never short of suckers. There will always be people who buy into the story that those before-and-after photos were not reversed, Photoshopped, or spanned a longer time than advertised.

Building and maintaining a writer’s mind is similar to building a body. You cannot build it over night and it takes constant work to maintain. It is a lot less obvious because you cannot see it, but the principle is the same: You need to nourish your mind with a large and steady diet of healthy books and you need constant workout on your brain. Writing is not like riding a bicycle. It is not the sort of thing you learn once and never forget. It only looks that way because successful writers never stop training themselves.

A lot of people have fantasies about becoming a published author, including myself. But the longer I work at it, the more I realize how inadequate my daily training routine really is. Some people just seem to type out a story in a week, send it off to a publisher, and laugh all the way to the bank. But then again, some people can dead lift five hundred pounds. It doesn’t take very long to lift five hundred pounds. You just grab the bar and push it over your head. The whole process takes only a few seconds. But to build a body that can do it takes a lot longer than that. It takes years of very hard training.

Writing a full length novel is like lifting five hundred pounds. It looks impressive in and of itself, but the real work is in building the ability to pull it off. If Anthony Burgess wrote an immortal masterpiece like A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, it was only because he had already finished a rigorous preparation period. Putting the story on paper was just the lifting of the weight. Just that alone was not easy or effortless, but it was made possible by the training that preceded it.

If you are the sort of person who believes that writing fiction is a get-rich-quick scheme, I have bad news for you: It isn’t. Some people attribute E. L. James’ success with Fifty Shades of Grey to the author’s many connections in the media world. I don’t buy it. Other people have had better connections but their books did not sell 300 million copies. A more likely explanation is that she is fluent in a new language, specifically the language of texting, which may be divorced from conventional grammar but approximates what people are already accustomed to reading on their phones. A computer analysis of Fifty Shades also revealed that, although the book tends to deviate from conventional narrative structure, it follows the same emotional fluctuations as other best selling novels. All of this suggests that the book was neither a fluke or a success constructed from personal connections. The author had carefully prepared to write exactly the book that she did.

The writer’s mind is constantly melding and fusing words, story lines, scenes, and metaphors. A writer does not just read a book, but beach combs through it for small treasures. A writer is constantly on the lookout for new pigments that can help paint pictures with words. A writer is always thinking about writing. There are no real vacations for writers, just as there are no real vacations for the body builder. If you stop, you fall behind.

There really is no such thing as an over night success in fiction writing. It only looks that way because, unlike the bulging muscles you can plainly see on Dwayne Johnson, the muscles that writers train to build are invisible. But the muscles are there. They are hard to gain and easy to lose. And any sucker lead into believing that they can write a competent novel without going through the rigorous training process is as comical as the mug who buys into the con that he can lose his lard and put on impressive abs and pecs within thirty days.