Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Middle-aged protagonists and ducks that aren't dead
It was warm enough that when I reached Point Wilson I was able to sit down on a log, take my gloves off, and jot a few thoughts in a notebook. (Until, of course, my fingers got too stiff to continue writing.) Here's what I jotted:
M. is middle-aged. And my ms is at 85,000 words. It is easy to see that her younger self would have scorned her for having gotten into the situation she's in. It's not a matter, in this story, of her being comfortable and not wanting to give up her comfort-- no one would judge her exactly "comfortable" (except by the most moralistic standards). Though certainly one could argue that she's looking for a way to make her life more comfortable. It's more a matter of her having made, for most of her life, one compromise after another, as each new crisis befell her. She began making these compromises by thinking she was being practical and doing what was sensible. But having done so time and again has put her into a state in which compromise is the preferred-- learned-- response to every demand for a decision.
This is the problem with writing middle-aged protagonists who haven't lived their lives in a constant state of self-actualization. Oh sure, a middle-aged character can undergo a conversion experience and be swept out of her inertia. And then, of course, there's the cliche of the midlife crisis. But midlife crises usually result in an attempt to turn back the clock, to shed social and personal responsibility. As someone holding on by her fingernails, that's just not an option for my character. The challenge here, for me, is to find a path that avoids her defeat but is nevertheless true to her character and is not a magical resolution. I have a very clear sense of her limits. But what I need to have now is a better sense of the possiblities within those limits. (She did, after all, start life with some solid resources. Utilizing those resources-- arguably dormant-- must suggest a horizon for the possible.) I hate it when writers suddenly gift their characters with possiblities that ignore their limits, as though when it comes to individuals in fiction, it is an act of good faith to believe in miracles. I know a lot of people insist on this as a sort of moral good. But when I read such stories, I'm left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth, as though I'd been eating saccharine.I damned sure don't want to find myself feeling that way about this novel.