Characters

True confession: I have trouble coming up with a decent plot. Sometimes I can do it. Other times I have what I think is a strong plot, but sooner or later it turns out to be weak. One way of saying this is, I know how to write, but I don’t always know what to write.

Right at this moment I have an idea for a novel I’d like to write. I have a fascinating historical setting, some subtly alarming magical creatures, and a young woman who is connected to the creatures in a way that I’m not yet ready to unveil. What I don’t have is a plot. I don’t know why my lead character would do anything in particular, other than live her life.

Brian Eno advised, “Turn your limitations into secret strengths.” Good advice. So I said to myself, “Self, why don’t you think about writing a literary novel instead of plotted genre fiction?” Such a novel would be a lot less likely to sell, but since my writing isn’t selling worth a damn anyway, that’s no great loss.

I figured I ought to read a couple of novels of a literary sort, in order to see how it’s done. I have seven or eight novels by Anne Tyler on my shelf, and she’s all about character. Very minimal plot. So I pulled out Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I read many years ago and didn’t remember at all.

After a hundred pages or so, I’m realizing it was a bad choice. The characters in this novel are just awful. I mean, they’re vividly and expertly portrayed. Tyler is a master. But they’re awful people. They’re not awful in any big, obvious, plotted-fiction way. But at the point I’ve reached in the story, Ezra, who is 30, has finally gotten engaged, and his elder brother Cody has apparently decided he’s going to try to seduce Ezra’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, their mother, Pearl, is a control freak and a sadistic bitch, but they love her dearly. Ezra has deeply hurt the feelings of the dying woman whose restaurant he inherited. The youngest child, Jenny, entered into an absurd marriage and is now getting divorced and dropping out of medical school. And the whole story is told as a flashback: In chapter 1 Pearl is old and in the hospital dying.

In a word, ugh. But above and beyond these people’s rather startling limitations as human beings, and above and beyond Tyler’s decision to write about them, her narrative seems oddly unbalanced. These people don’t seem to have joys, or even happy days. Tyler is really only interested in documenting their misery. She does a fine job of it — but why would anybody want to read this stuff?

Granted, writing about happy people might be boring. Giving your characters shortcomings, secret yearnings, and maybe an obtuse inability to learn better is almost certainly preferable to writing about a Mary Sue. But life is not just an unending barrage of bad judgment, lack of compassion, and bad manners. The reader will want to see a ray of sunshine once in a while.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, without joy, life would be a mistake.

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