Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What I Learn from Fiction

Having recently passed through (one might say “survived”) a blog tour concerning my novel Vine, it seems like a pretty good time to address one part of the experience.

The reviews, which were mixed/favorable, tended to major on the things that I usually hear.  People liked the things I expected them to like, and had reservations about the things that usually draw misgiving.  Said misgivings often major on the texture of the language (I write in long sentences because they slow the eye and make one think in nuances; I sometimes use obscure words—I was once called a “poseur” by an Amazon reader, which made me smile, because I believe that any English speaker who uses the word “poseur” is, well, a poseur). Others contend that “nothing happens”, and I will admit that there are few swordfights, rappels down the side of skyscrapers, and cold-cocking of a dozen ninjas in a long bout of foot-fighting; for me, “what happens” to most people—the events that define their lives—are nuanced changes in the way they understand things, the way they regard each other and themselves.  That being said, there’s a virtue in more thunder and lightning, and I’m working toward it. In summary, one of the mixed reviews objected that the book was not for the “casual reader,” and though to me that is neither a badge of honor nor a valid critique, I’m fine with my work being characterized that way.

What I don’t get, however, is the insistence on finding a character with whom you can “identify”, or at least how “identify” is used when people say that. We all identify with characters in fiction, but I submit we have to do part of the work in order to do so: and in that lies the cool part.
You have to stretch.  It’s one of the ways that fiction deepens your understanding, but it’s not like mainstream TV, where the viewer can passively identify with characters so broad and typical that you can dilute almost any of your own personal traits to fit that character on the screen.  In short, you identify passively, because that’s the way the character is designed—to reach the widest market.   

I like what  fiction does better.  How it takes you out of your comfort zone, and, with a little work on your part, brings you to understand a character with whom you  don’t readily “identify”.  How it expands your prospects.

In VINE I made up a character named Bucky Trabue.  A chain-smoking, right-wing Republican operative with a dose of outrage and corruption.  Now, in real life, I would be appalled every time one of his candidates won office, but in the book I began to like him: I framed my imagination to see the world the way Bucky saw it, and I came out understanding him, and in a way identifying with him.  Certainly liking him, and emerging maybe a bit deepened from the encounter.  He has a part in the new thing I’m working on: I liked him enough to ask him back.

You may not want to stretch with the characters you read about.  May want to sit back, relax, and “identify” in a generalized way.  And no, I’m not criticizing you for making that choice.  Just saying that not all fiction makes that kind of transaction, and that meeting someone different than you—in real life or in fiction—can be a good and healthy rendezvous.


  1. Okay, let me start this off... I'm not certain what people mean when they say they don't "identify" with a character. Do they not sympathize or empathize with the character? Perhaps I'm being too literal when I imagine that a medical billing and coding specialist could only "identify" with a character in a story who was likewise a medical billing and coding specialist. Their reading of fiction would be necessarily somewhat confined. Or perhaps there's an unexplored market for fiction centered on the heroic exploits of medical billing and coding specialists.
    If possessing a character with whom the reader can identify is a requirement for successful fiction, then how do we explain the popularity of Hannibal Lecter in the Thomas Harris series of novels which feature him? Or of Humbert Humbert? Surely very few readers truly identify with those worthies.
    I think the "failure to identify" dodge is either an odd way to say "I didn't like the story," or the complaint of a reader battened on romance or melodrama (is there a difference?)
    I personally believe in the universality of human experience and think a good writer can tell the story of a aboriginal walkabout in the outback of Australia and never leave his writing desk in Omaha, or Sverdlovsk. But the writer must coax the reader to make an emotional investment in at least one of his characters. I guess this emotional investment is what becomes that elusive notion of "identification."

    1. Interesting take on it, Primi, and I like especially your word "coax" in the penult sentence. The writer can't force that investment, and I think it's sometime frustrating to see some readers unwilling to meet a book halfway (or even a quarter of the way, for god's sake!)

      Of your two explanations for the "failure to identify", I tend toward the former a little more. We've been schooled in the critical notion that identifying with a character is essential to a rewarding read, or (and this may be more important) what you define as emotional investment is characterized as identifying. We can't honor another unless he's your medical and coding specialist, just like us.

      It's something that adulthood should wash away, but we both know it doesn't. And I guess I'm straying into something way larger than what a reader does or might do--the subject for a blog entry by someone else.