Characters with Agendas: How to Write about Politics in Fiction, IV

Nobody is the "bad guy" on the British cabinet in
37 Days; everyone speaks from a position
determined by personal values.
So how does a fiction writer prevent a novel from turning into a polemic (note: some of them don't). The best solution appears to be to start in the middle--

That is, to place the characters in the middle of the political situation and then divulge the problem entirely from those characters' points of view. They can be as befuddled by the complex and contradictory agendas--or as ignorant of them--as the audience (at least initially).

The writer should not be befuddled. Like a badly plotted murder mystery, a confused political novel will devolve into a morass of over-explanations or a frantic attempt to tidy up disparate realities (yes, political agendas conflict but they conflict within an overarching worldview; although Keynes and Hayek disagree, they still understand each other). My personal view is that this lack of consistency works on Star Trek because I don't believe Star Trek IS a political story (despite Deep Space Nine); I think it is Folktales in Space.

But if a movie/novel/series intends to deliver a political framework, then the little pieces that readers glimpse shouldn't increase their confusion; rather, the readers should start to see a bigger picture even if the characters don't.
Like in Blue Morning, in Queen of 
Attolia, characters can't sacrifice "all"
for love or affection. Political ramifications
require more complex responses.

In the manga series Blue Morning, for instance, there are three political agendas at play: (1) Katsuragi's initial decision to oust his charge from head of the Kuze household: (2) Katsuragi's later decision to protect his charge and force him to apply for a higher rank; (3) his charge's decision to give Katsuragi what he initially wanted. Unfortunately, (3) doesn't simply cancel out (1) and (2) because the political actions that both characters throw into motion complicate a simple resolution: they make enemies of the wrong people or agree to make trades with different families or, occasionally, the same families but for different reasons. Katsuragi especially has to deal with the ramifications of snowballs he set in motion--based on (1)--ten years earlier.

This is all surprisingly clear--though not to the characters.

Likewise, in the docudrama 37 Days the (seemingly unlikely) confluence of events that led up to WWI are depicted (largely) from the point of view of the British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey (actually, the events are related by a young assistant to an assistant of Edward Grey's). The audience experiences the snowballing/dominoes-falling sensation alongside those in power (how on earth did the assassination of a single political figure in Europe lead to all this?!). In the end, Britain's choice to enter the war seems both inevitable AND avoidable precisely because we have seen it from the inside rather than the outside.

And in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, although Bren, the genius human ambassador, does provide the reader with a great deal of internal political analysis, he is only able to analyze what he actually knows, including the knowledge that he cannot move the involved parties about as if they were characters on a chessboard; his insights may be vast; his resources and power have limitations.

Not only do these approaches make the writer's job easier, they also make the results more credible. The omniscient character who sees all and predicts all is not believable. Hindsight is 20/20. Living IN the political moment ain't so much.

T is for Thousands of Forgotten Pages

I do recommend the audio, read by Sir Derek Jacobi
Tey, Josephine: I have written about Tey extensively on this blog, specifically her mystery novel Daughter of Time.

Thackeray, William Makepeace: I know I read Thackeray in college, specifically Vanity Fair. I remember nothing about it. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have now reached that point in my life where I can reread--and be surprised!--by books I previously read.

Thompson, Victoria writes mystery novels based in 19th century New York City: the Gaslight Series. I can't say I am all that enamored of them, but they are respectable.

Thurber, James: I greatly enjoy Thurber's re-imagined version of Little Red Riding Hood (see below).

Tolkien: I can't say enough good things! I have posted extensively about Tolkien here.

Tolstoy: I tried War & Peace, I really did. Unfortunately, the version I tried was the large print version, which means I made my way (slowly) through 1/4 of the first volume and realized I still had 3/4 plus 6 volumes to go. It was too depressing. I gave up.

Trollope: I made my way through a Trollope for the first A-Z list. My review pretty much sums up everything I can say about Trollope.

Truman, Margaret: I skimmed a few of Margaret Truman's mysteries. They didn't grab me.

Twain, Mark: Or Samuel Clemens. In Folklore, which unfortunately I haven't taught in awhile, I present Twain as the All-American Writer. Despite his Southern/Mid-American roots, he was Stephen King and J.K. Rowlings before those mega-fiction stars came around. Everybody owned him. To be fair, he truly was that remarkable.

Tyler, Anne: I quite like Saint Maybe by Tyler. I recommend it.

"The Little Girl and the Wolf" by James Thurber

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

 When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

 (Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

Musing on Reading Non-Literally

No between-the-lines reading means no spoofs or satires!
Several years ago, I posted a review of a book about Oprah's Book Club. In my review, I reproached the otherwise insightful author for comparing books to television--different mediums, I argued, should not be judged in the same way. Television is not "shallow" while books are "deep." Each are deep or shallow depending on entirely separate criteria.

In the same review, I commented that how people respond to television and books has as much to do with what they bring to a particular medium as what it has to offer--a reader is as capable of coming away with a "shallow" understanding of War & Peace as a viewer is capable of coming away with a "shallow" understanding of Frasier.

Personally, I think "shallow" is fine--everyday life offers plenty of angst-producing moments all on its own. There's no reason why entertainment shouldn't be shallow.

But the point remains. And leads to what I call "literalism" in my thesis (for lack of a better term).

Literalism goes something like this: imagine a passage from a book (or a scene from an episode) where a character is reacting with anger to a suggestion. The reader or viewer could deduce that the character is afraid or uncertain or guilt-ridden. But another character says to the first, "You are murderous!"

What does the reader or viewer ultimately deduce?

Surprisingly enough, a number of readers and viewers deduce that the first character is murderous.

Truly. I've encountered this scenario so often in the classroom that I will sometimes have to open the discussion by saying something like, "Okay, the character is not murderous. The second character has limited knowledge."

In my Interpersonal Communications textbook, the writers argue that people who pay too much attention to microexpressions are worse at pinpointing liars than others. The Murr quote indicates why: they miss obvious verbal cues.  On the other side, paying too much attention to verbal cues seems to produce a surfeit of literalism. Both misreadings originate--or appear to originate--in the same impulse: There's one right answer, and I will figure out what it is from a "hint"! Now I know the absolute truth! 

When it comes to interpersonal communication, I suggest going with the obvious verbal and body language cues/hints simply because it makes communication so much easier. Trying to second guess what people might be thinking is fraught with unguessable weirdness.

But when it comes to understanding literature/fiction, literalism can often miss the point entirely.

Except that when it comes to literature/fiction, what a person looks for is--to an extent--what a person gets.

So, for example, people who define "moral" fiction by exactly how many naked bodies they see (zero to 100) are in fact experiencing a lack of offense when they see none.

Those who think that what constitutes a moral experience is entirely contextual may get offended despite seeing none, totally offended by seeing two, and not offended at all by seeing three. I've watched PG-13 movies that left me wanting to take a long shower to wash away the ewww feeling despite the lack of anything obviously, literally immoral. And I've seen movies that despite parental warnings didn't hit my internal "G" rating.

My point is not a critique of the rating system (even if I think it is kind of silly) but that what a person gets from a piece of art is going to depend on what that person hopes to find there.

At least Barney knows a bargain when he sees one!
I'm not arguing subjectivity (Moby Dick is a critique of NASA!) but rather dumpster diving or bargain shopping.

I am a terrible bargain shopper--the wrong person to go with if you are looking to hunt down that special deal, especially when it comes to clothes. My approach to clothes shopping is to pick one Saturday, go to Goodwill, force myself to try on sixty pairs of pants and thirty to forty shirts (it takes all day) and leave, finally, with the three to five items I found that actually fit and look nice.

And NOT repeat the experience for another year.

My failure to find good deals at higher end shops (or at Goodwill, for that matter) is not the fault of the shops. Nor does it mean that the deals aren't there. I don't find the deals because (1) I'm not looking; (2) I'm not that type of shopper; (3) I don't care.

And how would literary analysts explain that?!
I think reading/viewing is not dissimilar. A reader/viewer can hone his or her eye, but some natural interest or talent or desire needs to be there in the first place. If a person decides that television has nothing to offer, that person will find nothing there. If a reader decides that a book only offers a geo-socio-political meaning (the kind of literalism I encountered in my Master's program) that's what the reader will "discover" (I have to use "quotes" here--it isn't all that clever to "discover" geo-socio-political meaning in literature; anyone with the right intellectual language/training can "discover" such meanings on the back of a cereal box).

And if reader or viewer doesn't employ a between-the-lines approach (there's more here than what the characters or narrator tells me, and the creator intended me to find more), then the spaces between those lines will remain entirely opaque.

Can reading between-the-lines be taught? After all, when I bargain shop with friends, I find more stuff and have more fun!

When it comes to art, I would say, "Uh, maybe . . . not." As an English student, I went through four years of Literature courses with fellow students whose only take-away from the assigned reading was "the message" or lesson, the application to themselves (as opposed to a broader thematic view*) and whether "the message" was good or bad or helpful, etc. As a teacher, I often (though not always) encounter the literalism I mentioned earlier. And how people react seems to be almost entirely disconnected from their education or reading habits. They either read between the lines . . . or they don't.

The end of these musings . . . for now . . .  

*The difference (to me) between a thematic view and application is that the thematic view reflects on the human condition while application assigns "use" (as C.S. Lewis would say) to a novel or piece of art. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis remarks that he enjoys reading works embodying themes with which he disagrees because he can appreciate the perspective they add to the universe, a statement that always reminds me of A.E. Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young," a poem that I adore despite its fatalistic theme.

"Use" or application, however, insists that the worth of a piece of art is found entirely in the importance or appropriateness of its message to the reader or to society.

It's the difference between "Wow, we live in a weird world surrounded by disparate people all trying to comprehend each other and the universe--let's find out more!" and "But will it make us better people?"

My entirely personal view is that fiction should do the former and radio pundits can have the latter (with my blessing).

Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and the Paranormal: It's All About the Atmosphere

Ectoplasm: one of the odder
variations amongst spiritualists.
The "ectoplasm" is cheesecloth.
Books about Arthur Conan Doyle often read something like this: "But then, after creating the scientific Mr. Holmes, Conan Doyle proceeded to go off the deep end and invest himself in hunting for ghosts."

Along the same theme, several tribute authors have Holmes shake his head bemusedly at the sad mental decline of his friend/publisher, Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle.

Modern authors and critics make two mistakes here:

(1) Although Sherlock would have found Arthur Conan Doyle a far more bonhomous personality than himself, he would not have found his interest in spiritualism odd--not a Sherlock of the nineteenth century anyway. Spiritualism--at least initially--was greeted by the scientific community as a possible scientific advance. If humans could create a telegraph that communicated around the world, why couldn't humans create a device that communicated beyond this world? Scientific American offered an award to the first person to prove the existence of the afterlife.

Cottingley Fairies
To hugely summarize the Conan Doyle/Houdini relationship, Conan Doyle and Houdini investigated various spiritualists in America. From the beginning, Conan Doyle was admittedly more optimistic and Houdini was miles more skeptical but their mandate, at first, was the same: to uncover hoaxes and find the real thing.

They split when Conan Doyle thought they had found the real thing and Houdini continued to maintain that all spiritualists were frauds and hucksters (Houdini was right).

It is difficult to "get" Conan Doyle's intransigence in the face of what appears (to modern eyes) as obvious wackiness until one remembers that he lost a son and other family members to the horrors of World War I. In his dedication to occult phenomena, he supported the existence of the Cottingley fairies based on images that (to modern eyes) appear absolutely and obviously manufactured. It reminds me of a folklore class in which I showed the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot clip; a bemused student in the front row said, "And people thought that wasn't a guy in a suit?"

In "Possibility Two," Sherlock agrees to investigate
a man who has been "poisoned" by a genetic mutation.
The bee is his payment.
As our eyes become more sophisticated, our expectations for what comprises fraud increase. There's a reason that con artists generally stick to the abstract painters rather earlier artists; it is one thing to fool people with a Mondrian; it is another to fool them with a Rembrandt. However, even with a Mondrian, a true expert can often spot the fraud. Most con artists rely less on the product and more on the mark's willingness to be defrauded. Conan Doyle was willing to be defrauded. Houdini wasn't.

Despite Conan Doyle going admittedly a little strange (with those fairies and all), his hunt for the paranormal was still in keeping with nineteenth century scientific thought. The connection between forensics and, say, palm reading was at that time closer than makes us empiricists comfortable. From this perspective, Elementary's occasional episode in which an extreme scientific discovery plays a role is in keeping with the Holmes' tradition.

I love them all--but don't forget, folks:
Brett is still the yardstick (I realize.
that statement is debatable :).
(2) The Sherlock Holmes' stories, despite their emphasis on forensics, are mainly and principally adventure stories, not CSI-type discourses on fingerprinting.  Grissom is not running around shouting, "Preserve the evidence!" Watson is running around shooting guns. Most importantly, the stories are filled to the brim with atmosphere. All Sherlock Holmes, especially BBC's 1980 series with Jeremy Brett, utilize this atmosphere. Brett/Burke/Hardwicke -- Downey/Law -- Miller/Liu -- Cumberbatch/Freeman, everything up to and including the modernized versions hark back to the dark, oil-lamp London of bygone eras. (No, I haven't seen the Sherlock Christmas special; yes, I am looking forward to it!)

Sherlock Holmes has lasted for many reasons and one of them, yes, is the forensics. The forensics alone wouldn't have been enough though. Neither would the adventure. Neither would the characterization. Other mystery writers of the same era were producing forensics and adventure and memorable characterization.

Conan Doyle put it all together into one perfect creation.

And I'm sure Paget's pictures didn't hurt.

Politics and Fiction III: Let the Characters Alone

Not related to the episode referenced below--still,
the Numb3rs basketball episode totally amuses me.
Back to writing about politics! Not only is it a good idea to give the characters grounded wants and needs, it is also a good idea to limit a character's beliefs and understanding to what that  character actually believes and understands.

What makes fictional politics difficult is that politics is messy, the opposite of seamless and monolithic. Dive into any part of history and what immediately strikes one is how complicated people can get about anything. The First Nicean Council wasn't about whether or not to believe in God but what type of God to believe in; the possibilities under discussion ranged from orthodox to utterly bizarre. The latter is why serious historians get so miffed about The Da Vinci Code--the historical discussion was way more complex than hippie flower-power versus authoritarianism.

And everybody involved thought, "I'm right!"

Daria would roll her eyes.
This type of complexity can bog a fiction writer down. On the other hand, if the fiction writer is too simplistic, the problem looks stupid and the characters look dumb. I got tired of the "big, bad corporation versus the little guy" plot before I left high school. (Dumber "teen" novels use this approach: now the triumphant teen will dazzle the hardened CEO with her "everybody matters!" speech, and he'll break into tears!! Insert extreme rolling of eyes.)

In comparison, I refer to a discussion in Numb3rs' "Take Out," where Amita protests CalSci offering its services to a pharmaceutical company that is known to sell AIDS drugs at exorbitant prices to less developed countries; Millie counters by pointing out that no corporation has a spotless record--how else is CalSci supposed to get its name and influence out there? And Charlie's father points out--in a different episode--that these companies conduct pricey research that could lead to important cures.

In "Take Out," Millie comes up with a fairly intelligent, political solution that involves CalSci performing all tests in-house and donating half the proceeds to AIDS charities. My writerly point is that the script writers never indicate exactly how they feel. The characters speak as each of them would be expected to speak.

Another good example of each character speaking from
within his perspective--creates good tension!
Likewise, in his commentary on Avengers, Joss Whedon (very kindly) points out that when Captain America says, "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that," Captain America is speaking from within his own perspective. Just because Whedon is an atheist, doesn't mean his character would be. This type of confusion is so irritating that I praise Whedon for being so level and gentle with the idiot audience members.

It is amazing to me how many readers are convinced that a character can only and forever be a reflection of the author; yes, authors draw from themselves into order to create characters; that doesn't mean that King Lear, Hamlet, and Julius Cesar are all direct autobiographical accounts of Shakespeare's life any more than Jane Austen was the spitting image of every one of her female characters.

Mansfield Park characters by Blue Sky Inking
I've read commentary about Austen--by female critics who should know better--who blather on about how odd it is that Austen would criticize putting on plays in Mansfield Park even though her family put on plays when she was growing up. As if Austen couldn't put herself into a mindset and context that wasn't a direct reflection of her past! (She could.) Or use elements of her past for entirely different effect! (She could also do that.) Fanny may not be that endearing a character-- she is a fully realized one. And Austen made that happen.

Austen made it happen because as a good writer, she knew that she didn't have to have Fanny reflect every mood, idea, personality trait, thought process, and belief system that currently existed in the nineteenth century. She simply had to have Fanny be herself.

Chivalric Love versus The Dumb Kind

The ultimate poor-me romantic!
I love romance; I also have standards. For one, I've never been partial to the Romeo & Juliet type of romance--I'm soooo in love that I'm going to get stupid. One can easily imagine Romeo and Juliet twenty years later blaming each other for the hovel that they live in, their estrangement from their families, their lack of friends, etc. etc. etc. Frankly, I always thought Lancelot and Guinevere deserved to be executed. And I have no great opinion of the main characters in The Illusionist.

The best reality-check for "but luv solves everything!" thinking is Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility (you go, Austen!). Willoughby is that guy who always thinks something else would have made him happy. Once he gets the cash, he starts to think that maybe romance was the way to go. But Elinor easily and correctly deduces that if Willoughby had gone for the romance, he would have regretted the cash. In Persuadable, I have Mr. Elliot meet up with Willoughby and deplore the other man's fulsome and pointless regrets (a good con artist knows when to let go and collect).

Anthony as a great example of a romantic character.
Having made the above statement, here's my caveat: I adore romances where characters are absolutely loyal to each other and (even) sacrifice themselves out of loyalty. I consider Anthony (Scarface) one of the best characters in Person of Interest--and boy, was he paid off in a stellar fashion! (He was also paid off in a way that explained a great deal about Elias's personality and background.)

I don't necessarily agree with Anthony's morality--I will do everything for my boss--anymore than I necessarily agree with the morality of starship crews who agree to follow their captains into any situation. Elementary's characters, in comparison, have more complex moral codes with Watson, in particular, putting her personal integrity first: I'll do everything for you . . . to a point. 

Even though I don't agree with Anthony's morality (what I call chivalric loyalty), it doesn't bother me the way Romeo and Juliet romance bothers me. I've tried to parse the difference and came up with the following:

Grant's Devlin puts himself at risk for Bergman's Alicia:
chivalry at its best; after all, he doesn't rescue her
until the case is completed!
1. First, the difference isn't the romance. Anthony is about as romantically attached to Elias as a person can be. And many romances (Dorothy Sayers's Wimsey and Harriet come to mind) bear a far closer resemblance to chivalric loyalty than to Romeo & Juliet nonsense. That is, a romance doesn't HAVE to be Romeo and Juliet. (See Hitchcock's Notorious.)

2. Chivalric loyalty depends on the giver's values, not the taker's. Anthony decides to serve Elias because of his own personal code. He isn't badgered into serving (Elias wouldn't trust him if that were the case). In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth decides to love Darcy because she realizes that her values match his, not because he overwhelms her emotionally. Likewise, in Jane Eyre, although Jane is overwhelmed emotionally by Rochester, her eventual decision to rejoin him is based on what she wants to have happen, not what she has been pushed into wanting. Even in Bronte's writing, there is a kind of cold objectivity at work--the characters act; they don't simply react (oh, I can't help how I feel--blech!).

3. Chivalric loyalty is about serving the other person, not about living through him or her

Sayers tackles this problem directly in Unnatural Death. She argues against partners trying to find happiness by subordinating their wills to the other partner's needs. Sarah Caudwell, another British mystery author, makes a similar argument with her book The Sibyl In Her Grave though from a slightly different perspective. Sayers describes the harm that people can cause to themselves and others when they try to live through someone else--the wife who tries to achieve happiness through her husband's fame as an artist ends in "consuming" both him and herself: nobody is happy.

Caudwell emphasizes the sheer destructive power of a person trying to live through others, reminding the reader of the adage "crazy people make even sane people crazy."

Amanda Sketches
C.S. Lewis presents an excellent example of this adage in The Great Divorce. A woman meets her husband in Purgatory. Throughout their married lives, he would put on a martyred air whenever she didn't do what he wanted. He even resented her being happy and getting along with their neighbors because he wanted her moods to always reflect his own. This mindset has become so much a part of him that in Purgatory, he is depicted as a small man walking around holding the chain to a hyperbolic actor. The wife attempts to speak directly to the small man; in the end, he refuses to hear her and disappears. The wife is allowed to get on with her (after)life: she is no longer held hostage to her spouse's (perceived) needs. 

In sum, characters who sacrifice themselves thinking, "I must make someone else happy!" or "Someone else should make me happy!" don't make for good narratives (at least, not narratives that a person doesn't want to throw across the room--you know, anything by E.M. Forster).

Characters who sacrifice themselves for a belief or a person out of their own belief or love make for good narratives.
  • Sam sacrificing himself for Frodo: good narrative.
  • Bones kicking Booth out of the house for gambling, then taking him back when he shows a desire to reform: good narrative.
  • Beatrice and Benedict writing letters of mutual approbation (and Benedict never actually following through with Beatrice's desire that he kill his best friend): good narrative
Any character anywhere giving up a job or a hobby or a belief system for the sake of another, not out of the everyday need to compromise but out of the mistaken belief that the so-called noble sacrifice will save the relationship: stupid. 
The difference may seem subtle on the surface. How deep the difference goes! 

Amnesia and Repressed Memory: Great Plot Ideas, Bad Science


I remember how disappointed I was when I researched amnesia for a story in my teens. It turns out that soap opera amnesia--character gets into an accident, comes back with no memory of the past yet continues to function normally--doesn't happen. People who do suffer extreme amnesia always have accompanying physiological symptoms: headaches, continual memory lapses, trauma in the muscles, strokes, etc. etc. etc.

In other words, a person who continues to suffer from amnesia will be visibly lacking in functionality (i.e., people will say, "Hey, what's wrong with you?!").

People can undergo temporary fugue states--rather like driving to a location without being fully cognizant of having down so. In this case, the "amnesia" is temporary and the person cannot perform complex critical thinking (the body takes over, not the mind).

Functionality is why I don't believe Agatha Christie suffered amnesia when she disappeared in 1926. I think she was suffering immense psychological distress and didn't much care what happened to her. But I don't believe that she could have checked herself into a hotel, participated in conversations with fellow guests, and deliberately changed her name to that of her husband's mistress while undergoing a fugue state. It makes for a great plot! It doesn't make sense reality-wise.

Amnesia is a great plot idea (although believing that Christie did what she did without amnesia is rather more interesting): The prince who doesn't realize he is a prince. The woman who doesn't realize her husband is her cousin (yikes!). The detective who misses his own wedding and doesn't know why (Castle).

But it's not credible. (Castle was pumped full of drugs to make his amnesia plausible.)

Repressed Memory

I consider the False Memory cases of the 1980s and 1990s to be the most chilling example of "Chicken Little" syndrome (panic ruining people's lives) in American history. Luckily, Elizabeth Loftus and other psychologists/scientists effectively showed--both then and now--that memory doesn't work the way repressed memory advocates maintained.

What amazes me is that anyone had to prove the uncertainty of memory. In the 1950s, Mary McCarthy wrote about an incident from her childhood and then talked about discussing that incident with her siblings who didn't remember it the same as she (if I remember correctly, one brother didn't remember the incident at all).

When I took a memoir writing class in college for my B.A., we discussed this: how tricky memory is; how, even when we do remember (or think we remember) things correctly, we exaggerate or fictionalize them for effect. I'm sure that Paul H. Dunn had no intention of lying--aren't dying declarations always more exciting!?

As Ceser Millan explains: dogs, like children, react based
on what they sense--not to what they should do logically.
So memories can be unreliable. Doesn't everybody know that?

In addition, doesn't everybody know that children may lie and exaggerate without any deliberate intention at dishonesty? Children are like dogs--they can sense what adults want to hear and offer it up on a platter.

I have first-hand experience with this; around second grade, I developed slow-reading habits. They were almost entirely psychological--I suffered from a bit of OCD and would read passages over and over (I started reading relatively late; late readers often suffer from some type of difficulty; these readers often become voracious readers as they age, as I did).

My teacher advised my mom to take me for testing at an outside tutoring place. I *sensed* why I was there and deliberately read slowly in order to give the testers the same results as my teacher had been getting; in my confused little brain, I thought I was being honest.

Despite reading slowly, I believe I still got all the reading comprehension questions right. When the testers tried to convince my mom that I needed help anyway, she was seriously unimpressed by their sales pitch. She sent me instead to the elementary school's special education teacher. At this point, I was getting nervous. It had never occurred to me that producing the same results would actually result in me having to attend extra classes, a fate worse than death. (Besides which, "special education" had a stigma.) So I set aside my nervous ticks and speed read everything put in front of me.

I got the impression at the time--and even now, looking back--that the special education teacher, while not knowing exactly what was going on, had a pretty good idea that the issue had nothing to do with my academic abilities. She seemed to find me amusing more than anything else.

So here's a woman who worked with kids day in, day out and consequently understood (1) that kids' behavior and memory is something of a crap shoot and (2) trying to deduce causation and induce life-altering social changes from a kid's behavior and memory is problematic in the extreme.

Unfortunately, Olivet--a great Law & Order character--
touts the then popular repressed memory drek in this
early Law & Order episode. It's a well-written episode!
In real life, the father should never have been convicted.
But a bunch of so-called child psychologists in the 1980s and 1990s failed to form the same conclusions. They were on a "SAVE THE CHILDREN" bandwagon and threw commonsense straight out the window (besides which, recovering repressed memory was--and is--so much more dramatic than helping people through standard therapy, which is frankly rather plodding and dull, even when productive).

Repressed memory makes for great plots. One doesn't have to look any further than Spellbound (which contains both amnesia and repressed memory!) to appreciate its fictional potential. It makes for lousy morality in real life.

Political Fiction, Part II

If you, the writer, can't keep human nature in mind when writing about politics, don't write about politics!
I have told this story elsewhere but it bears repeating.

Great altered fairy tale: Cinderedna!
One of my favorite things to do, even before I became a writer, was to play around with fairy tales. I started doing this as a pre-teen. I would wander the house imagining what would happen to a fairy tale if I made all the villains into heroes and all the heroes into villains--or all the male characters female and all the female characters male (the latter runs havoc with an historically accurate Cinderella, BTW).

While getting my B.A., I took every Creative Writing course I was allowed to take--and then got permission to take a graduate level Creative Writing course. For the peer-reviewed short story "final," I took the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, changed the heroine to a prince, and altered the curse. Instead of not being able to touch a spindle (can you imagine the damage burning all the spinning wheels in a country would do to its economy?!), my prince was cursed to never be able to pick up a sword. Since he is a member of a war-like culture, this curse makes him a liability and reduces his ability to lead.

The prince is plenty ticked off by all this and some of my favorite pieces of dialog between him and enchantress that cursed him concern the nature of freewill and the right to fulfill one's destiny or purpose.

The problem with the story was the enchantress, the person who cursed him. Why did she do it? Originally, I had her purpose be ultra-idealistic and noble: I'M AGAINST WAR!

Judith cutting off Holofernes' head
The problem with giving my character such a motivation was (1) I am myself something of a hawk; I don't automatically oppose war no matter how unfeminine that may seem (I've always thought the mindless political assumption--by mindless political people--"There would be no war if women were in charge!"--was stupid beyond belief. Anybody ever heard of Queen Boadicea? Or Hatsheput? Or Queen Elizabeth? Or the Amazons [even if they were made up]? In any case, there never was an agrarian, female-run, peaceful utopia way back in the primitive past--despite what lazy 1970s anthropology books may claim. The exercise of power through violence may be a male prerogative due to patriarchal systems; it isn't exclusive to males.)

Of course, writers can and do build characters who feel differently from them, but it's difficult, especially if the writer wants--as I wanted--to create a balanced tension between two characters.

(2) The second problem with giving my female character an idealistic and abstract motivation is that it was idealistic and abstract. People can have such motivations but they tend to be subsumed in real life by mundane considerations (like, hey, I have to eat!). They are also extremely difficult to write about plausibly--without making the character TOO good or TOO sweet.

Tolkien's text makes clear that it is Galadriel who
staves off Sauron's incursion against Lothlorien.
Even Galadriel and Gandalf have emotional and psychological considerations that make them "human" and approachable. Galadriel has to protect her territory; in addition, she is curious about the world, invested in exploration and discovery. Gandalf is irascible--even after becoming Gandalf the White--and invested in motivating kings and stewards to particular actions. (Regarding what makes a Tolkien villain and hero, see my latest Tolkien Post.)

Eventually, I settled for giving my female character a far more self-centered motivation: all of her previous lovers died in the country's ongoing wars. She curses the prince as a baby with the deliberate intention of making him her lover when he is older, a lover that won't die young.

I still didn't agree with her, but I found--once I gave her a clear, human, self-interested motivation--that I could write her sympathetically. Which is the whole point. The story became "Madeline's Lover" and can be found on my fiction page.

More about politics and fiction to follow!

Fictional Politics, Part 1

One of the greatest difficulties in writing world fiction is creating a believable political background.

By world fiction, I'm referring to those sub-genres--sci-fi, world fantasy, romance--where the characters strut across a larger landscape than their own backyards (contemporary novels tend to focus on "my angsty life!" which is irritating enough; it gets even worse when the personal angst is combined with angst about world conditions).

Creating a believable political landscape can be difficult. On the one hand, the politics can't be too simplistic. On the other, the story needs to be more than a polemic or diatribe.

Here is one of several suggestions for writers who need to create some kind of political backdrop to their narrative:

1. Keep basic human nature in mind.

Red Letter Media points out, correctly, that Star Wars I (the dumb Star Wars I, not Star Wars IV [which I think of as Star Wars I]) presents a completely unreal and unbelievable political problem. Plinkett breaks it all down better than I can. Suffice it for me to say that Lucas would have been better served if he'd stuck the bad guy in nineteenth century dress, given him a handlebar mustache, then had him tie the Jedi to the train tracks while chortling, "Ha ha ha, I have put my plans in action!"

Wait! Isn't that kind of what happens in that movie?

Town meeting--
it looks boring . . . cause it is!
The fact is, human nature is self-serving, yes, but it is boringly self-serving, mundanely self-serving, yawningly self-serving. As P.J. O'Rourke states of a democratic town meeting, "It's like being a cell in a plant," and to a degree he could say that about any government. Okay, yes, Henry VIII sounds exciting, killing off all those wives, but between the executions, the diplomatic legalistic yammering doublespeak would hit the snooze button on anyone's alarm.

Politics is boring! In realistic trade negotiations . . . first of all, they wouldn't involve Jedi . . . but let's suppose they do . . . the Jedi show up--with their team of geeks who did all the real work--and talk. And talk. And show their graphs (prepared by the geeks). And talk. And talk more. And show more graphs.

Then the other guys blather on. And blather. And blather. And show their graphs. While blathering.

After which, everyone has donuts.

Political conflict may involve big scary things like executions and, well, war. But in the short term--that is within the confines of character development--political conflict is petty, snarky, crafty, and localized (more on the latter later). C.S. Lewis and Tolkien between them do a fine job of making this clear in their world fantasies. Sauron is big and bad. Everyone else is satisfying earthly, understandable emotional and psychological needs, even the orcs.

And few petty scenes in fiction have been as well-written as Edmund's interior dialog during his trek through the snow to the White Witch's palace. He is NOT thinking in terms of dynasties; he is thinking in terms of getting back at people in the here and now.

Granted, it is much more exciting (relatively speaking) to watch people FIGHT! and ESCAPE! than discuss contract sub-clauses. But that immediately leads me to Point 2, which I will tackle in a separate post:

If you, the writer, can't keep human nature in mind when writing about politics, don't write about politics!

S is for School Books and Others

Saberhagen, Fred: I've read numerous books by Saberhagen. My favorite is The Dracula Tape, a retelling of Dracula from Dracula's point of view. While remaining faithful to the original text, it provides a refreshing (and very funny) view of events from the "villain's" eyes.

Sansom, C.J. is the author I read for the first A-Z List.

Sayers, Dorothy: Classic Golden Age author. I'm a fan. I've written elsewhere about how I feel Wimsey compares to other detectives. In sum, I think Sayers created a complex and aging character who changes naturally over the course of the novels while remaining fundamentally himself. Sayers also did a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The translation itself is okay. Sayers' notes are fantastic.

Shaara, Michael: I read Killer Angels, which I wrote about here.

Shakespeare--The A-Z list doesn't cover playwrights, but I had to include Shakespeare and Shaw (see below). Call me bourgeois but yes, Shakespeare's works are as incredible as a million schoolrooms force students to believe (of course, forcing them to believe is a useless approach; that doesn't mean Shakespeare isn't one of the greats!).

Shelley, Mary. Yup, I've read Frankenstein! It's nothing like what B horror movies have led people to imagine. I'm not saying it's better because frankly, the novel is kind of wordy. Only, it's more crazed-child-comes-after-its-mother than huge-scary-monster-wrecks-the-planet. More Turn of the Screw, less Godzilla.

Shaw, George Bernard: I'm a fan of Shaw's work although I'm not a fan of his politics. He was one of the dumb intellectuals who got all cute about Stalin back in the day. His work is smarter than the man. I was lucky enough to see Trevor Nunn's production of Heartbreak House starring Vanessa Redgrave, Felicity Kendal, and Paul Scofield when I did a Theatre in London program in 1992. The play also starred Oliver Ford Davies though I didn't appreciate that at the time. I did appreciate Felicity Kendal playing a character completely unlike Good Neighbor's Barbara. Amazing production.

Shute, Nevil: My mom recommended Trustee in the Toolroom for our book club. It was a good read and produced a good discussion!

Simonson, Helen: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Another bookclub book and quite enjoyable.

Soltzheitsyn, Aleksandr: I read Cancer Ward in high school as one of my voluntary-reading-day choices. I have no idea why, but I did, and I finished it.

Stein, Garth: The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of the best contemporary fiction books I've read. Another bookclub book!

Steinbeck, John is the author of one of the few books I didn't bother to read in high school. Generally speaking, I was the kind of kid who always read the assigned book. But I'd already been forced to consume The Pearl. When it came time for The Red Pony, I couldn't bring myself to care whether it hurt my grade or not to not read it, so I didn't read it, and I have no regrets. (The Pearl and The Red Pony are quintessential examples of how it is easier to teach tragedy than comedy--lazy teachers.)

From Stalky & Co.: would make a good manga!
Stevenson, Robert Louis: Stalky & Co. is high on my list of amazing books I am so thankful I've read!

Stewart, Mary wrote suspense romance novels with a literary tone. They are quite good. I've read a number.

Stoker, Bram: Author of Dracula. The first part of this book is better than the second. I remember the first time I read the first part, sitting in my sister's house in Washington. Suddenly I realized that it was near midnight, no one else was awake, and there were tree branches scrapping the windows (really!). Ooooh. I got shivers and ran off to bed.

Stout, Rex: I prefer the A&E Nero Wolfe movies to the books. However, Stout's The League of Frightened Man contains the best passage of a narrator reacting to an attack that I have ever read. Whenever I read the passage--told from Archie's point of view--I ache for Archie's painful discombobulation. Astonishing!

Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver's Travels is such a dreadful book that the last time I taught an on-line literature class (in which it was required), I switched it out for Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gulliver's Travels is NOT a story. It is a travelogue full of ironic and satiric references that modern readers find completely irrelevant--and it doesn't have the sheer, shivering terror and alarming nightmare imagery of Dante's Inferno (another book with irrelevant satiric references); Gulliver's Travels doesn't drag you along by the sheer force of the writer's poetic genius; Gulliver's Travels merely makes you want to slap Swift.

LOTR--The Books This Time--The Eagles

This is my latest Tolkien post. On my new Tolkien Posts blog, it appears further down the list; those posts are grouped by topic, not chronologically.

The eagles show up in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings as eucatastrophic figures. The term is Tolkien's, so couldn't he have used the eagles to fly Frodo into Mordor (not just out)?


Breathable airspace is breathable airspace even in Middle-Earth, and Tolkien kept his fantasy world as close to realism as possible. Magic supplements--never replaces--the plausible action of Middle-Earth.

In other words, eagles could never fly higher than Winged Nazgul. Or faster.

Eagles are also not indestructible as the Battle of the Five Armies (both book and movie versions) indicate. They can be killed by ground weaponry (i.e. arrows) and certainly other winged creatures. Plus Sauron's giant great eye has power of its own: call it an anti-missile defense system. In sum, Mordor is fairly immune to flying stuff. The eagles would be spotted immediately.

Gandalf and Elrond's entire plan rests on secrecy. Sauron must never suspect, even for an instant, that the Fellowship's goal is to destroy the ring. The moment he did, Sauron would naturally block access to the volcano, both from the ground and from the air. He would not "systematically empty Mordor," a process that allows Frodo and Sam some degree of freedom as they creep across Mordor's landscape.

Of course, this begs another question: Is it believable that Sauron would never suspect that his enemies intend to destroy the ring?

Yes, it is.

When reading about WWII, one becomes aware of how much the Nazis believed in their own untouchability. Note, I wrote, "Nazis," not the German army or, for that matter, the German submarine commanders. The German army and navy were composed of a mix of good and bad and indifferent leaders like in any nation's military. (And many of them despised Hitler.)

It was Hitler--and Hitler's paranoia--that insisted on maintaining constant wireless communication with the German military, a state of affairs that led to the British eventually breaking Enigma. It was Nazi wishful thinking that led to the bizarre and successful career of double-agent Garbo.

The Crossing by Peter Fiore, a more realistic portrayal
than Leutze's famous painting.
To back up to a group of far less fanatical--and far less degenerate--commanders, British complaisance allowed George Washington to escape New York and led to the completely unanticipated rebel attack (and victory) on Trenton on Christmas Day. A severely diminished army, the American rebels nevertheless routed the surprised Hessians, incurring for the Americans only 2 deaths (both from frostbite).

It is easy in hindsight to see the obvious (and I'm sure if Sauron had lived, heads would have literally rolled), but Sauron's weakness is his inability to believe that anyone would actually destroy the ring. Although he captures and tortures Gollum, he misses what Gandalf and Elrond have not: Gollum may be obsessed with the ring, but he lived for generations under the mountains without feeling compelled to do much more with it than catch orcs to eat. Gollum, however corrupted, has the same stamina and indifference to power that make Bilbo and Frodo good bearers.

Sauron isn't totally imperceptive: should Aragorn, Galadriel, Boromir, even Gandalf--any of his "real" rivals--don the ring, they would sooner or later be drawn into the dark. They might momentarily eclipse Sauron (hence his worries about Aragorn); in the long run, however, they would be drawn to his ways: dominion over the lives of others. A military rival is something Sauron dreads yet something he can handle.

Consequently, Sauron reads in Gollum the very thing he sees in others and himself: desire for the ring. He fails to notice the intrinsic toughness that will eventually undo him. Gollum, however ruined by the ring, is hobbit-like enough to eventually care only about wearing it, not wielding it over others. And that indifference to power is something Sauron cannot comprehend.

"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics:

R is for Thoughts on Amazon and MemoRy (Amongst Other Things)

Illustration for Pamela
It is rather depressing to reflect on the authors I might have read, only I'm not sure because it was so long ago: Marilynne Robinson, for example (saw the movie Housekeeping; think I might have read the book).

Here are the ones I do remember:

Ayn Rand: Generally speaking, I detest negative reviews on Amazon--the ones that whine about the shipping or that read, "i hate this book it was stupid i didn't understand it."

I have found it far more helpful when doing my own purchasing to read 3 or 4 star reviews. 5 stars can be a little over the top ("this is the best book ever and if you don't agree with me, your [sic] stupid!") although some can be quite thoughtful, the equivalent of good literary analysis. 3 or 4 stars (it was good but here's what I didn't like) prove surprisingly helpful. I've bought numerous things after reading 3 star reviews, precisely because the reviewer's reasonable objections were either objections that I understood from a writing p.o.v. or ones that I could shrug off.

Now I must confess: I have written a completely negative review on Amazon, namely for Rand's Anthem, which I consider one of the dumbest books in the world.

I'd still defend her right to write it though.

Ray, Jeanne, the author of books like Step Ball Change and Eat Cake, comes highly recommended by several readers in my family (including me). Her books are lite but not gagging lite. Rather, they are quick, cute, funny, and insightful reads (think better-written sitcoms like Frasier). There is artistry in light comedy (more artistry, in fact, than can be found in a million serious tomes).

Raybourn, Deanna: I am a fan of her Julia Grey mystery series.

Rich, Virginia wrote detective novels, including The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders and The Baked Bean Supper Murders. I remember those books positively. (I don't remember the murderers!)

Richardson, Samuel naturally! Although it's a strange book, I enjoy Pamela and have written my own tribute/literary analysis of what is widely considered the first English novel.

Richter, Conrad wrote the The Light in the Forest, one of the better assigned novels from high school.

In the world of unread books, I recommend Conall Ryan's House of Cards. I read it years ago and own it. It is an unusual book about a man teaching poker to a group of students as a form of self-discipline. The book delves into the life of each character, including the teacher. The book deals (yes, deliberate pun) with what people are willing to "bet" (sacrifice, give up, depend on). (Despite owning the book, I haven't read it in awhile, so my review here is based on memory.)

House of Cards, which is not well known, proves that there is a reader out there for every book, a gratifying thought.

Roosevelt, Elliot is the author I read for the first A-Z list.

Ross, Kate: Ending on a sad note, Kate Ross wrote a wonderful series of historical detective novels, starring Julian Kestrel. I own the set. Unfortunately, the rather youthful Ross died of cancer at age 41, so though the series ends strong, it certainly doesn't end where originally planned!

Lieutenant Columbo as Role Model

I teach two Academic Success Courses (How to Be a College Student for Millennials). Each course has a separate literary focus: Murder Mysteries and Lord of the Rings.

At the end of both courses, students are required to write a five-paragraph cause/effect essay about role models. For the Murder Mystery course, the question that the essay answers is "What detective would make the best role model and why?"

And yes, Sherlock Holmes is a common choice! I also get essays about Agent Hotchner from Criminal Minds, Shawn from Psych, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown (!), Nancy Drew, the Scooby-Do Gang, and Magnum P.I. ("His mustache!").

My choice--and example--is Columbo.

1. Columbo rarely loses his cool. 

Columbo is known for his ability to stay on task ("one more thing"). What I find even more impressive is his immunity to others' anger during the investigation. Murder suspects lose their tempers, threaten to report Columbo to his superiors, chide, criticize, and--in the case of the "Columbo Goes to College"--mock. Through it all, Columbo not only doesn't get upset, he even goes along. In the Columbo pilot, "Prescription: Murder" the sophisticated psychiatrist "profiles" his detective tormentor:
Dr. Ray Flemming: I'm going to tell you something about yourself. You say you need a psychiatrist? Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But you are the textbook example of compensation.
Lt. Columbo: Of what, Doc?
Dr. Ray Flemming: Compensation. Adaptability. You're an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you're something you're not. Why? Because of your appearance. You think you cannot get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you, and that's where you trip them up. Like coming here tonight.
Lt. Columbo: Boy, you got me pegged pretty good, Doctor. I'm gonna have to watch myself with you, 'cause, uh, well, you figure out people pretty good.
Dr. Ray Flemming: Now you're trying flattery.
What makes this exchange so great is Columbo's complete acquiescence to the "profiling." He doesn't bridle. He doesn't argue. He doesn't protest. He uses the conversation to find out more about Flemming. Even better, he reacts to Flemming's analysis with a shrug and his elfin smile.

Columbo does get angry--precisely, in "Stitch in Time" and in "An Exercise in Fatality." Those two times are all the more noticeable because his anger is such a rarity.

2. Columbo isn't afraid to look silly. 

He's got his "foreign" car. He's got his hard-boiled eggs. He's got his rumpled raincoat (in one very funny sequence, he keeps trying to "lose" the fancy new coat his wife bought him). He's got his dog.

Maybe he comes off as geeky or nerdy or weird. Whatever it is, Columbo doesn't care. Peer pressure? Columbo's never heard of it--not because he is some grand rebel. He simply knows what he wants and what he believes. He is centered without being self-centered.

Columbo is perfectly willing to let other people educate him about art, cuisine, dentistry, horse racing, wine . . . He'll ask an entire bar of strangers what the weather was "last Tuesday." Or play chopsticks to a world-class conductor. Or--my personal favorite--run all over London acting exactly like an American tourist. And if people snicker--so what?

What makes Columbo's indifference to others' opinions so wonderful is that he really doesn't mind looking foolish. He isn't trying to be rude when he asks questions about abstract art; he truly wishes to find out more.

Speaking of which, when Columbo is embarrassed (mistaking an air vent for a sculpture, for instance), he says, "Oh, I'm embarrassed," and the whole thing blows over.

Columbo also treats his fellow officers with respect.
In "Negative Reaction," he relies on several officers
to testify to the murderer's self-incriminating behavior:
"Did you see what he did?"
3. Columbo is kind. 

His kindness, like the kindness of Lucy Liu's Watson, entails bringing out the best in others rather than crumbling under the weight of empathy (a hard line to tread).

In "Dead Weight," he encourages the witness to the murder to trust herself--despite her history of emotional problems. In "Dawn's Early Light," he allows the murderer a final moment of dignity. In "Forgotten Lady," he warns the troubled murderess's devoted admirer and partner of her impending arrest. In "Try and Catch Me," he states the following:
Lt. Columbo: [to group of murder mystery fans] I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot. And I'm not depressed by it. And I don't think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers because it isn't. It's full of nice people just like you. And if it wasn't for my job, I wouldn't be getting to meet you like this. And I'll tell you something else. Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them too. Sometimes like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that. But for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there's niceness in everyone. A little bit anyhow. You can take a cop's word for it.
He still makes the arrest but he does it courteously and without fanfare or humiliation.

A cool head, a kind heart, and immunity to pressure: great traits for anyone to have!

Guest Star: Courtney B. Vance

I became a fan of Courtney B. Vance the first time I watched The Hunt for Red October.

Vance plays Seaman Jones, the crew member on the Dallas who loses, then finds the Red October on sonar.

Here's my favorite relevant dialog:
Watson: Seaman Jones here is into music in a big way, and he views this whole boat as his own personal, private stereo set. Well, one day he's got this piece of Pavarotti...
Seaman Jones: It was Paganini.
Watson: Whatever.
Seaman Jones: It was Paganini.
Watson: Look, this is my story, okay?
Seaman Jones: Then tell it right, COB. Pavarotti is a tenor, Paganini was a composer.
Watson: So anyway, he's got this music out in the water, and he's listening to it on his headsets, and he's just happy as a clam. And then all hell breaks loose. See, there's this whole slew of boats out in the water...
Seaman Jones: Including one WAY out at Pearl!
Watson: Including one way the hell out at Pearl. All of a sudden, they start hearing, Pavarotti...
Beaumont: Pavarotti!
Watson: Coming up their asses! 
I love the line, "Including one WAY out at Pearl!" especially the way Vance says it, with sudden excited humor and total mischievousness (the story has obviously been told on the submarine a million times).

I ran into Vance again in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, playing D.A. Carver (back when Law & Order: CI still included a courtroom "order" component). He also appears in the sixth and seventh seasons of The Closer as Tommy Delk; he is so marvelous, yet so totally underused (by writers who rarely made such mistakes in The Closer's run) that I assume he was originally slated for a bigger role in the last season before the writers realized that it WAS the last season (their way of getting rid of Delk is so shameless, I kind of admire them: Hey, this particular story arc isn't going to work! Okay, moving on!!)

Vance has a fabulous voice and a no-nonsense way of delivering semi-serious lines (because, okay, nothing on Law & Order: CI should be taken too seriously).

He is, in sum, cool.

Five Romance Storylines: Angst to Slice of Life

Northanger Abbey as Burlesque
I group romances into two broad categories: world-based and character-driven. Originally, I further characterized these categories as having three different plot structures.

After exploring television, movie, shojo, yaoi, and paperback romances as well as nineteenth century romantic literature, I present five romance storylines:

1. Angst . . . 

. . . pretty much says it all. Are we together? Will the person I love fall in love with someone else? Will we break up? Did I do something wrong? Can I admit my feelings? Does the other person feel the same way? Will I? Won't I? Will I? Oh, dread! Oh, terror! Oh, my beating heart!

I can't list many examples for this category because I get so tired of the incessant self-reproach-ment that I give up about a chapter into the novel. Pamela by Samuel Richardson is possibly the only Angsty romance that I like.

Angst is the main reason I never finished Twilight.

2. Burlesque (or Soap Opera)

The Burlesque dwells less on internal problems and more on external ones: STUFF keeps happening. If it doesn't take itself too seriously, this storyline can be a hoot-and-a-half (occasionally, it becomes funny because it takes itself seriously). Jane Austen successfully spoofs the extreme version of this storyline in Northanger Abbey.

A sweeter, gentler version of this storyline likewise depends on the unexpected occurrence of unlikely events but in a way that doesn't send one into a Tess of the d'Ubervilles frenzy (When will all this stuff STOP happening!?). Many of Georgette Heyer's very amusing novels, such as Sprig Muslin, utilize this approach as does Sanami Matoh's cheerful Until the Moon and @ the Full Moon.

In reference to the latter, most manga volumes--especially in the middle of a series--end up in the Burlesque/Soap Opera category, simply due to the exigencies of the form (manga series over four volumes have to supply lots of possible twists and turns). The manga series Gravitation utilizes the Burlesque/Soap Opera approach to the nth degree and is consequently as annoying as one would expect (of course, the setting is the music industry).

With its tongue firmly in its cheek, the sweet spoof-tribute Princess Bride is the most friendly and hilarious take on this approach.

3. Serious Drama

The difference between Serious Drama and Soap Opera is the plot-line. Serious Drama is less about stuff happening to people and more about a situation in which a relationship suffers or thrives.

Although Romeo & Juliet is often presented as Soap Opera, it is really more Serious Drama, being more about the social situation than the romance (really!). Serious Drama is almost always about something other than the romance. Consequently, Robin McKinley's Deerskin, Elizabeth Marie Pope's Perilous Gard, and Austen's Mansfield Park--despite the inclusion of relevant romantic relationships--are less Relationship Central (next category) and more Serious Drama. 

4.  Relationship Central

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the majority of Jane Austen's novels, a manga series like Mars . . . focus almost exclusively on building the relationship. The Relationship Central story differs from the next category (Us Two Against the World and/or at Work, which usually presents the relationship as a given). Relationship Central, on the other hand, takes readers/viewers back to the relationship's beginnings: the past is as important as the present.

Persuasion, for example, builds Anne and Captain Wentworth's relationship through Anne's eyes as she remembers the past, meets her beloved's sister and sister's husband, and watches Captain Wentworth interact with others. The novel isn't what I call world-romance since all events in the novel work towards a single end (in world-romance, Anne would spend far more time shoe shopping and dating other people). Yet Anne and Captain Wentworth's interactions are limited. In Romance Central, the romantic partners are not necessarily working through things together (although they will talk and dance and eat together), but, rather, working through things separately in order to be together.

Many paperback romances fall into this category.

Most mystery romances fall into the next.

5. Us Two Against the World (and/or at Work)

My personal casting for Harriet and Wimsey: Daphne & Niles!
One of my favorites, this romantic storyline sets the couple's relationship within a context of (1) fighting a conspiracy (X-Files); (2) fighting crime (Castle, Bones, Wimsey & Vane, Fake, Scarecrow & Mrs. King); (3) fighting censorship (Library Wars); (4) fighting social pressure (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand).; (4) fighting a war (Queen of Attolia, Maiden Rose) or, (5) in the case of Tangled, fighting a curse plus some henchmen.

I discuss the work aspect of this storyline in my post "Give the Romantic Character a Job: Manga Does It Right".

The downside of this storyline is that it can easily dissolve into Burlesque. The upside is that the reader learns more about the main characters by watching them work together and responding to external problems. As a bonus, the romantic characters will often also experience personal growth.

The Slice of Life or series of Vignettes is a variation of the Us Two storyline. Like the Soap Opera, the Slice of Life has no definitive narrative arc. Unlike the Soap Opera, the Slice of Life is not frenetic or fast-paced. Rather, it has a sweet, lazy feel--enjoyable for its very lack of emotional demands. Many food-based romances use the Slice of Life/Vignette approach as does the joyous movie Bread & Tulips.

Generally speaking, many romances use more than one storyline. Howl's Moving Castle, for example, utilizes all of them; Miyazaki in particular excels at creating a sense of nostalgia through a Slice of Life.