I Don’t Want To Tell You A Story…
Sometimes I go too far. If I’m told things are done such and such a way, and have always been thus, then my natural inclination and my politics are to kick against it. But these are my own little scuffles I am not looking to proselytise or convert. So I throw the following freely into the mix, purely to stimulate debate and provoke consideration of one’s own craft, if only for a fleeting moment.
We’ve talked about the campfire storytelling instinct. When people could enter a collective imaginative space conjured for them by the bards. Tales of monsters, heroes, kings and other recognisable things within their societies; things that aided people to order and arrange the strange and scary exterior world and know their place in the man-made hierarchy within it. But public readings and book clubs aside, storytelling (outside of plays/films) is no longer a communal activity. It is performed solo.
I would also posit that as much as an oral audience enter the story, they were inducted through the characters. Humans, demi-humans and immortals sporting human traits just like themselves. We no longer live in a world of myth and legend, (well we do, but no one seems that bothered to deconstruct these and strip the scales from our eyes). Now, we- that is mankind- seem reasonably attuned to the notion that the only significant agency within our lives, is human, not supernatural. Either we take responsibility for our own decisions, or we ascribe the consequences may be down to other humans within our orbit.
There are supposedly only 7 basic plotlines. Yet these have been spun round innumerable times. Presumably this is because each writer brings their own unique vision to the tale and the varying emotional responses of the characters they create when faced with the same range of scenarios.
So no more communal storytelling (though interestingly we collectively recognise character archetypes even outside of art). No more heroes, kings etc, required to apprise us of our place in the world and no more monsters to conquer other than those definitively acknowledged as emanating from within ourselves (not talking vampires here). All the plotlines have been done countless times. All that redeems them is the diverse input of their characters. If I can go out on a limb here, we no longer need story narratives to organise the world for us. We are snared between the glut of readily accessible information explaining away everything, with the fact that both we, the world and knowledge itself is atomised and fragmented. That the world is quantum. That it is no longer possible to be a Renaissance man, even if you are called Stephen Fry.
So I would place the character element at a higher premium than the story. Of course I also have problems with the concept of ‘character’ as well. Sat round the camp fire, or sat in the cockpit at The Globe Theatre back in its heyday, the punters were probably booing and hissing, cheering and clapping the goodies and the baddies. Today the distinction between a goody and a baddy is less clear. These divisions stem from a religious/moral view of existence, which has fallen into disuse among great tranches of populations in the Developed world. Morality is ambiguous, when you have a character such as Dexter the serial killer, portrayed as an empathic character whom the audience is supposed to identify with. Hannibal Lecter gets all the best lines that raise a belly laugh.
If through our art, we try and penetrate our adriftness in the modern world, our doubts and ambiguities about our existence, the lack of comprehension of certain technological truths and cultural trends, then we will inevitably tend towards a fragmentary narrative. Partial insights, half-grasped truths. So character to my mind becomes more akin to Voice. Not fully rounded. Not possessed of an omniscient perspective. In such a scenario, the voice may become of more value to the reader than the story, which probably mimics the fragmentary narrative it derives from. If the reader shares our confusion of comprehension, then the comfort to be derived is from a voice that offers to guide us through the morass. A believable voice, one that mirrors our own inadequacy, but offers some hope of enlightenment. A voice rooted in emotional intelligence as it too tries to cut through the crap with a sensory machete. To make some hidden connections at least. But one limited in power and destined to fail in all likelihood.
Now I’m about to argue against myself. Of course such writing may still involve story telling. In my book, you pretty much know all about my (anti-?) heroine’s life by the end of the novel, which must mean she has been relating it in parts throughout its course. But the novel to my mind is not about her story. She is sat at bars, sponging drinks off strangers by spinning these tales, possibly outlandish, possibly true. She is an unreliable narrator. A possible fabulist. But is she an unreliable voice, guiding the reader through a certain perspective on the world? No, her voice yields insights to the world, even if she is incapable of inhabiting them herself. Returning to the notion of a reader being alone when reading, yes a page turning, gripping story may make them keep reading – but I don’t detect too many Year Zeroers are about that. No, in my case I want that central voice in the book to seduce the reader to keep reading. To keep up the conversation, the catechism even. An intimate confab. She is someone the reader hopefully wants to devote 3-6 hours of their time in the company of. You can have a character without story in a novel, but you can’t have it the other way round (unless possibly your novel is a huge canvas painting a war or a scifi universe). Now replace character with voice and you’ll be coming round to my way of thinking. Not that I’m trying to convert you of course.
Okay I’ll go sit on the heretic step now and take my licks. At least I never mentioned language even once.