A week or so ago I attended a student production of The Man Who Came To Dinner. It was wonderful in the way that high-school plays almost always are. There’s a lot of talent at this particular school, but give a kid the chance to step outside of the role he or she has been assigned by family, teachers, and peers, and I guarantee there will be magic.
Hasn’t that happened to all of us? New school, summer camp, job, lover, and voila! New aspects of ourselves. There’s a joke: wherever you go, there you are. But that’s only true in certain ways.
I left the play thinking about characters in fiction versus drama. How little slack we fiction writers have, really, in our workshops. We’d never get away with some of the stuff playwrights Kauffman and Hart pull off, particularly regarding the secondary characters. The play’s plot delights in the narcissistic Sheridan Whiteside’s shenanigans as he tries to keep from losing his secretary, Maggie Cutler. Maggie is the only person who can really put up with him, and she has gone and fallen in love. Whiteside would rather break her heart than lose her loyalty and service.
The trouble is, from the point of view of a fiction writer, the secondary characters have no real weight. We have no idea why Maggie loves her beau. We can only assume that because she is clearly not given to trifles, he must be worthy of her.
A fiction workshop would send this draft right back to us. Why, why, why? they would demand. What’s so great about him, anyway? Sure, he wrote a good play, but she must already have met dozens of talented playwrights in her life with Whiteside.
In a play you can rely on the actors to inhabit the characters. The players get on stage and look into one another’s eyes. They literally sweep each other off their feet. We get it. On the page, you have to go deeper. With less.
But I started thinking about why we are so insistent on WHY. Should we be? Is motivation something we can get to the bottom of? In a short story? I recently read this year’s PEN/O. Henry anthology. My favorite story in the collection is “Leak,” by Sam Ruddick. This piece is joyous. It has humor, sure, but there’s also this feeling of celebration and animation that’s so often lacking in contemporary fiction. The characters are surprising, but with their own internal logic. So this story is mysterious but recognizable. It fees like dream, without being all confusing and dream-like.
Even though “Leak” really wasn’t anything, in tone, like most Russian fiction, it made me think of work like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or a Dostoyevsky novel. Dostoyevsky frequently will say something like, He sat in a corner, muttering. Abruptly, he stood up and came over, smiling broadly. He really was a friendly guy. After about an hour he left without speaking to anyone.
We, the readers, are expected to just accept all this about the character and that’s that. We don’t get any pictures of the guy’s rotten childhood, necessarily. Nor, in The Man Who Came to Dinner, do we know what caused Whiteside to become such an insufferable, but somehow globally beloved, prick.
In her essay about secondary characters in Jane Smiley’s “The Age Grief,” a novella about a rite of passage for many middle-class Americans, and which is also a seminal work for a lot of contemporary writers, Robin Black reminds us how deftly Smiley draws the crowded cast of peripheral people in the story. A character may only have a line or two, but still we see him or her memorably. When secondary or tertiary characters start to stand up, speak up, move around on their own, the tale becomes less about motivation, and more about animation. We are not presented with a text to analyze but are immersed in a world that amazes.
Black points out that the periphery can act as a centrifuge, squeezing down on the story’s stakes. It doesn’t matter, really, WHY people are doing what they do, though we may and probably will speculate. We want to find out how they will get through it. In The Man Who Came to Dinner, WHY Maggie loves her boyfriend matters less than how she will keep the glamorous actress from stealing him, and why Whiteside is such a jerk is less interesting than whether he will be successful at getting his way.
Yet, there’s that pesky workshop. I increasingly find that workshops/critique groups want every little thing absolutely resolved. Why, one person wrote in one of my margins, did a character from the 1800s want to be a rancher like her parents? What would motivate her to carry on their dream? Really?
This year I had a fellowship with very few obligations and a lot of privileges. One of the benefits was visiting classes where students were discussing my work. The best discussions took place in the younger classrooms, because it’s truly a rare experience these days for a writer to be exposed to pure readers. And readers like these—kids who are being trained to read extremely closely, with real reverence, and to discuss what they read around a table, with a lot of give and take. They were capable of deep insight, and I learned a ton about my writing from them.
The older kids were, as I had been warned, a bit more jaded. The conversation was perhaps more sophisticated but also less thoughtful. Or at least, less useful to me in that it was more likely to be closer to what I might already have heard before, from writers. After reading a more difficult story, one eighteen-year-old male commented, I don’t think a mother would think this way.
I had to laugh. As if he would know. As if any of us, even those of us who are mothers, would know.
Please understand. I don’t mind if someone disagrees about my characters’ motivations or feels I need to work harder to make them more convincing. I am always working harder. But I am also questioning my own tendency to demand too much—not too much overtness, because I think I am decent at subtlety, but too much rationality from my characters and situations. Rationality is what these students were asking for, and what workshop readers seem to desire as well. But perhaps what we really should strive for is a certain integrity of story while recognizing that humans and life don’t hang together sensibly.
Here’s to leaving some room for readers to read into a work, just as playwrights leave space for actors to act.