This week I read S.J. Watson’s mystery thriller Before I Go To Sleep, the story of a woman with amnesia who gradually pieces together an awareness that her constant, loving husband may not be so loving after all.
After a couple of pages I wasn’t sure I would continue with the book. I once experienced amnesia after a head injury and it was damn scary, and recalling the sensation of being lost inside my own mind made me uncomfortable, sometimes even nauseous. (Besides this, I have to admit, the book’s milieu was not to my taste, my Irish convict genes encoded with little sympathy for middle class Brits and their problems.)
However. Somewhere early on, I can’t tell you where, I attached to the main character in this novel and I couldn’t let go. Outlaw Album on my Kindle.
I could not do it.
S.J. Watson has done that elusive thing: she’s written a page turner, the book you read in one sitting, the book you read until your eyes are red and blurred and it’s four in the morning and you have to get up at six but you can’t stop until it’s finished.
Now, it seems to me that in dramatic screenwriting it’s a lot easier to craft this rolling flow of attention and interest. It’s in the way you structure and sequence the things that happen, the flow of questions and answers. But in fiction? It seems mysterious to me, magical. The page-turner effect is like alchemy, worthy of the highest praise.
All this awe led me to wondering about character identification and how on earth it really works.
You know when somebody on a social media site says some jackass thing and your brain says, UNFOLLOW? Sometimes you even 'Unfollow it up' and hit that little green button, or the blue link that says Unfriend. Where is the line they’ve crossed, it’s inside you, right? Unique to you?
So, regarding the main character in my own novel in progress, as the story has unfolded I’ve been surprised to discover that she tells lies. A lot of them. Unfortunately, when it comes to my own tastes as a reader, I would probably shut my own book and return to Woodrell. I desire honest heroes. Flaws and moral complexity are great but the heroes and antiheroes I like best tend to be truth tellers, often to a fault. This woman, though? Habitual liar. I’ve been wondering if this will be a turnoff or even a dealbreaker for readers and if so, how to deal with this, since characters are who they are and that’s that.
This week, after tossing all this around, something great happened. Through my teaching job I got free tickets to attend a seminar at a Brisbane university by a visiting Hollywood screenwriting guru. The man’s written a couple of books linking mythic storytelling with cinema, and he works as a story analyst on studio pictures. In this seminar the guru was likening the identification process to infantile attachment, using the metaphor of the umbilical cord; he described how it is broken at birth and how we cast around throughout our lives for something or someone to which we can re-attach; he claims it’s a primal human need. (This isn’t new by the way, Aristotle and Joseph Campbell and all that.)
The guru claimed that when we 'link in' with a hero in a story, our phantom umbilicus grabs onto that character and we become one, like mother and infant, then the primal connection pulls us along for the ride.
The man was kind of an egomaniac--the telling of his ‘personal background’ tale ran for almost two hours--but the hundred or so people in the lecture theatre were indeed along for the ride. We were on his side, we were following.
Then something strange happened. A sick kid in his late teens started coughing in the audience. Not loud (we didn’t hear it and we were right in front of him) but I guess it happened more than once. The guru stopped speaking mid-sentence and said to the lad, “you should get a cough drop for that.”
The kid blushed and said, “I know, I’m already on them, I’m really sorry.” Humble, his head bowed.
The guru stepped forward. Hard, angry face.
He berated the kid for distracting him.
He told him to leave.
The auditorium fell silent and I'll be damned if I didn’t hear every one of those umbilical cords snap in unison.
The guru had crossed the line from hardass to asshole. A Hollywood asshole at that, probably not even his own trait, just a side-effect of working for too many years in movie studios among other Hollywood assholes with their farmer-kicks-wife-kicks-kid-kicks-dog mentality. But regardless of the reason, there was nothing he could have done or said to get those listeners back, to regain their trust, their allegiance.
The rest of the session was tense, quiet. The book was closed.
I believe the writing God answers our questions if we ask them in the right spirit, and this was my message of assurance.
Your heroes can lie, they can walk out on their loved ones. They can kill people like Dexter, they can ruin people like Tony Soprano. Let them go where they need to go. If they go too far you will hear the snap, you will feel the chill.
You will know.