In my line of work you learn that ordinary people are capable of the most unspeakable acts. The actus reus of an offence, it’s physical components, are often the easiest to quantify — he put the baby in the microwave, set it to ‘high’ for five minutes, then pressed ‘start’ — but at law we are also required to prove the mens rea, the guilty mind. People oversimplify this, thinking it just means proving a person’s intent — that the act was not accidental — this is part of it, but only one aspect. We might need to prove recklessness, for example, as to the foreseeable consequences of an act. Or wilful blindness to what a reasonable person ought, in these circumstances, to do or think. Many other variations I won’t bore you with.
As a writer, I think it’s essential to consider the mens rea of all characters and not just the antagonists. Everybody has a guilty mind. Plotting their physical actions is almost secondary to charting their mental passage. This, for me, is the more interesting journey: ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen, for example, but there are hundreds of others. A book can move at lightning pace without guns, explosions, violence and gore. That’s not to say that every reader will like this, but who gives a f*ck what every reader wants. I’m just interested in you. The ‘average reader’ is as imaginary a creature in literature as the ‘reasonable person’ is at law. I’ve never met one. I wouldn’t want to. The existence of such a being would be stultifying.
I wonder if in the rush to bash out a NaNoWriMo project, or meet some artificial deadline, or allowing life to distract you from your art, we permit the cost to be borne by the guilty mind of our characters and not their guilty acts? I’d say we almost always preserve the acts, but sometimes (often) get a little fuzzy as to motivation. I know the dislocating effect of this: its like waking from an awesome dream with a sudden gasp — throw yourself back down on the pillow, try to grab it by the tail, but the dream is gone. If a character does something that makes no sense, willingly suspended disbelief is severed, and then I have to ask myself, do I want to go hunting for it’s tail or can I not be bothered. My bookshelf is filled with not-bothered: the novel half-read (and yes, I’m looking at you, David Foster Wallace, notwithstanding that you are dead).
Let me say upfront that I’m no advocate for allegory (because it’s too strident) and don’t particularly like symbolism (all that conscious artifice), but what I do yearn for is intriguing subtext. I want the reader to wonder “Shit, why is the character doing that?” enough to keep reading until the “Aha! Now that makes sense!” moment happens. It’s the crux of all good detective novels, but applicable across all genres if you think about it. But why is this particularly important to me? As I said before, I live in a world populated by almost inexplicable acts. I don’t understand why a person would put a baby in a microwave and part of me doesn’t want to understand — but there are other parts of me that need to understand. Not just the part that gets paid to find these things out, but the part that’s sitting here right now typing these infernal words: WHY WOULD HE DO THAT?
Plots are easy, the coward’s way out. That’s why bad or lazy writers start and end with action. Find any action in the first ten pages of ‘Blood Meridian’ I dare you; Cormac McCarthy may be in hie eighties, but he would still hand you your ass. But then, that book is a masterpiece, whereas most of the stuff we read is shit. To be fair, there are plenty of readers who will pay good money to read stilted, unconvincing shit. Well, good for them, I say. Tara Moss and Matthew Reilly both need to eat. But I trust I don’t need include my readers in that category. After 48 posts, I reckon I’ve weeded out all the “What is this shit?” types, who would long ago have shaken their heads and reached to ALT-TAB back to cat videos.
Goodbye lurkers! To you (my faithful and slowly growing cohort of Australians, Americans, and Canadians mostly, but also my shy friend from Brazil, and a welcome smattering of readers from Europe and elsewhere) indulge me in this apotheosis: I need to go back and make sure each of my characters draws breath and screams. I think there’s an opportunity here to write something good, and the handful of you that have earned it will be the first to judge. When it’s done, it will appear here before it appears anywhere else.
So back to work, and as always, thanks for joining me.