I’m sure you’ve seen articles in which writers explain their struggles to find inspiration. I’m sure you’ve seen articles where writers explain how, crushed as they are under unbearable work loads and familial burdens unequaled by Atlas himself, it’s just so hard to find time to bless you all with another glorious tome of kitty poems. The sheer creative weight of the writing endeavor may inspire you with pity or it may cause you to throw your wireless mouse and say something like “try working for a living you dirty, ungrateful *long stream of expletives,* and your mother, too. ” Either way, I don’t judge.
The truth is, I face neither problem. I get bogged down just like everyone else, but finding inspiration isn’t usually a problem for me because I’m blessed to live and work with a lot of very interesting people and, even more fundamentally, my entire job, both as a writer and a lecturer, is to think about new topics to discuss. Workloads, likewise, don’t – can’t – present anything more than temporary obstacles to my writing. Not because I’m such a go-getter, more because I suffer with chronic, untreatable diarrhea of the pen. If I hold it in too long, I’m gonna pop.
(I’ll just leave you with that popping from diarrhea of the pen image. You’re welcome.)
Since I’m not short on inspiration or crushed by work, what, then, is the point of my writing you? Part of it is make you all hold my hand and guide me through the creative equivalent of adolescence, propping up my delicate self-esteem and patting my head. But even beyond my desires to build a literary kingdom built on the servitude and oppression of my readers, I am writing this letter because my next book is shaping up to be a 1400 page, unintelligible black hole of faux symbolism, philosophical pig slop and non-sense characterization and I need some outside perspectives.
Here’s what I know about the story so far:
- a) The first protagonist, we’ll call him The Striver, has to choose between being morally good and mattering. He cannot have both because there are no realistic, legitimate paths to power for people of his class, in his society.
- b) The Striver has to choose being bad and meaningful, at least initially. Otherwise there’s no story. He can change his mind at the end, but if he does so, he goes back to being meaningless. I should point out that “bad” in the sense of this story is not going to be pointless cruelty or puppy kicking. I mean it more in the sense of being willing to do almost anything in the pursuit of his goals.
- c) The second protagonist, we’ll call her The Prophet, is going to be based on Machiavelli’s “unarmed prophet.” She is idealistic, fair and absolutely in love with justice. She is also very brave and very tough. For these reasons, she’s doomed. Think Savonarola but minus the crazy.
- d) The Prophet is going to have a relationship with The Striver before she dies.
- e) The third protagonist, we’ll call him The Scion, is well-intentioned, well connected and basically a nice guy.
- f) The Scion will not have earned his power and will thus have to decide how he plans to deal with The Striver. The Scion can capitulate or he can attempt to keep his position, but he won’t be able to get along nicely with The Striver since his power necessarily comes at Striver’s expense, and vice-versa.
- g) The antagonist is going to be a personification mathematics – specifically the uncertainty principal. Or, in other words, he is nature revolting against determinism.
- h) The antagonist by no means has to antagonize the protagonists at all times, or even most of the time, but he is always the enemy of long-term planning, prescription and prediction.
These certainties leave me contemplating a number of possible paths. For example, if The Striver and The Prophet are in love at some point, I can make The Stiver’s rejection of idealistic goodness – and thus The Prophet herself – into a tragedy. However, I’m also playing with the idea of making their relationship platonic, involuntarily platonic from The Striver’s point of view. This would leave the reader feeling that goodness is fundamentally beyond The Striver’s reach. He’s going to choose power over goodness in either case, but I can’t decide if a motive of traumatized idealism makes for a better story than a motive of frustration.
I also need to decide if The Scion is going to empathize with The Striver. On one side, empathizing with The Striver would make him a wise, admirable figure. The reader then would feel more invested, hopefully, in his struggles. On the other side, it would mean that mounting a strong defense against The Striver’s striving would be, at least in part, an admission on The Scion’s part that power by birth should be more important that power by merit. I can avoid both these things by having The Scion commit the fundamental attribution error and dismiss The Striver as evil. This will be easier to write and at once makes the conflict easier to justify for both characters and morally cleaner for The Scion, more easily preserving him as the story’s knight in shining armor guy. I’m not sure which way I should go on this.
Lastly, I need to decide how the story turns out. Some endings I’m thinking of now include a victory of The Striver over The Scion where The Striver continues choosing power over goodness. This probably ends with The Scion’s death. On one hand, this ending affirms the Horatio Alger story of pulling one’s self up by exertion and skill. On the other hand, it is the almost literal death of innocence. Another ending I’m considering is The Striver achieving power, deciding the ruthless needed to achieve it was too much and returning to a meaningless life. This ending would affirm a very Confucian worldview, where people who are born low should accept their inferiority and not challenge their betters. It also allows goodness to prevail. If I want to go dark, I can have the Scion defeat The Striver and thus affirm that upward mobility is hopeless and wrong. This would also make it hard to show The Scion’s goodness, since it would require a great deal of squishing enemies. If I want to make it super dark and a parable about the ambitions of men, I can have mathematical uncertainty destroy, for no reason, whoever emerges from the struggle.
I’d be honored if you, my impossibly groovy and awesome readers, would be so kind as to leave me your suggestions on these problems. You are of course welcome to propose solutions outside what I’ve already laid out.
Ben Garrido is the author of The Blackguard, published by Lucky Bat Books and available here in both print and ebook formats.
The “Striver” sounds a bit like MacBeth.
Ooh, I hadn’t thought of that before.
Umm … well, maybe this is naive, but with regard to the ending, what do you believe is true? You’re clearly writing a book with a Message About Reality … so surely defining the message will show what the ending has to be? And once you know the shape of this reality, if you also know the character and personality of your protagonists, surely they will behave in the way that makes most sense?
Ahhh, hell, what do I know. I’d like to read the book when you figure it out.
I actually don’t have a message about reality. I mean, I kind of do, but fiction for me is more about building scenarios and letting characters find the consequences.
Those endings and interactions are all, in essence, scenarios to explore.
Well, if it were me approaching this problem (which I must stress is much more complex than anything I’ve attempted as a writer), I would start by defining the parameters. Even if it’s not a message in the sense of a moral, you need to know what you believe is real in the universe of the book. Then I’d throw in the characters – whose world view would not necessarily match my own (but my version would be the real one), and then see what happens when their world view collides with the world-as-it-is that I have envisioned. I suppose you could start with the characters individually defining reality, and let the strongest character “win”. This may in fact be more true to the way the world we live in actually works. But I can see writing about it becoming pretty messy … which may be why life itself is often so frustratingly difficult to understand.
That’s a good point. I find it really annoying when authors let weak or stupid characters triumph in the service of a moral lesson.
I fully anticipate a morally ambiguous ending.
Dear vivid thinker of many options and lover of philosophy and worldviews: This sounds very complicated and I wonder if it needs to be trying to accomplish so much? I agree with BT’s comment and recommend you turn your interesting characters loose on the page and steer with your knees when they exceed the speed limit.
Good point. Do you think I should get rid of some of the elements?
I agree with Belladonna: “You’re clearly writing a book with a Message About Reality … so surely defining the message will show what the ending has to be?”
And watch out for ambiguity in the message. Your characters can be complex, even self-contradictory, but each trait must be interpretable towards the message of your book, which I think should be clear. Once that message is clear, these questions you have will fall into place. If you have ambiguity it should come in the form of complexity, but shouldn’t give off the impression of being irresolvable. That’s just very irritating and too many authors think this is fine, but it’s NOT. Imagine what would happen if someone discussed your book for their book club. Then write.
It sounds like you have your first draft, so you’ve had that time to explore your characters and “let them talk” or whatever (I’ve never liked that, but it is true to some degree). Now you can start honing in on your message and each POV character’s narrative arc. I think the questions you’re asking are spot on and indicate a desire for a strong message, which will make your book appealing.
Of course, I can’t really give a strong vote without knowing what your overall point is, but here are my thoughts:
“However, I’m also playing with the idea of making their relationship platonic, involuntarily platonic from The Striver’s point of view. This would leave the reader feeling that goodness is fundamentally beyond The Striver’s reach.”
I like this idea. It’s archetypal. It works. Of course, the devil is in the details, but this can be pulled off with finesse. It also creates tension throughout the book, that little question, “Will they get together?”
The other points are too hard to say much about without reading it and knowing your message. The relationship between Scion and Striver are directly dependent on your message, which we know at this point will be about determinism and free will, but perhaps more importantly, virtue and happiness.
Hmm. Interesting comments.
I would say that the message about reality is that I’m not sure if upward mobility and goodness (within a Nietzschean slave-morality framework) are compatible. If it’s impossible or impractical to attain power through goodness, is goodness a valid way to judge people?
The first answer most people seem to come to is something along the lines of “it’s better to be humble and good than powerful and bad,” but I think that’s kind of silly upon further examination. After all, if you have no power, you can’t influence the direction of society.
I think of it like a mathematics problem. Historical effect is variable Z, goodness is variable Y and power is variable X.
X * Y = Z
As such, if your power is zero, it doesn’t matter how good you are, your impact is still zero. I would further elaborate that by observing that powerless people are FAR more common than people with no goodness, a species I’m not sure actually exists.
If you accept my premises so far, it would seem to imply that power is the prerequisite.
This is where we get into the relationship between the scion and the striver. Social mobility really doesn’t exist in my story’s society, but somebody must have the power. Without social mobility that means power comes from heredity. In other words, this sort of society has both eliminated merit as a precondition of power and ensured those born to power don’t have to do anything nasty to achieve said power.
In this sense, I’m trying to create a battle between the Scion’s unearned power and innocence and the Striver’s earned power and thoroughly defiled innocence.
So what’s better? In the slave morality framework, probably unearned power and innocence. In the master morality framework, it’s probably the opposite.
As for what the Striver eventually ends up choosing, I’m not sure. I do know there will be consequences either way, good and bad. I would like to write either ending, but I’d also like to hear what people would be more interested in seeing.
BTW, this is nowhere near a finished first draft, though I’m flattered you thought so! I’m in that awkward stage where the outline seems to be fleshing out and a dozen or so scenes seem to be establishing the characters.
Hope you’re doing well on The Philosopher King. 🙂
In this case it seems to me the Scion would not sympathize with the Striver, not in any real way at least (but maybe in a certain sense he would feel sorry for the Striver, due to their unequal situations). The Scion would in his innocence simply have power, but wouldn’t have to make use of dirty dealings to get there. He would probably look down on these dealings. Even if he acknowledges the unfairness of their situations, he could still think to himself that if he were in the Striver’s shoes, he would choose to be good instead, even if it meant sacrificing power.
I imagine grounding the reader in the Scion’s POV as the sympathetic character. This will make for a nice surprise at the end when his goodness turns out to have no impact on the real state of affairs.
To make your point clear, I think the Striver would have to achieve universally recognized good in society by doing his dirty deeds. The Scion would achieve similar success without having to do bad. There you’d have your puzzle for readers to solve and still a clear message=power is necessary to affect change for the greater good.
There might be a further question here—how happy does this success make the Striver? I would love to see him miserable, for my part. But we would of course have a strange admiration for his sacrifice, even if it does amount to some dirty dealings…especially if you make this ‘greater good’ absolutely abundantly perfectly clear, indisputable. Something huge. Something like stopping the Nazis.
Then there are these questions to consider: Does the Striver want to do good, but also is realistic and realizes he must do some amount of evil to achieve power? Or is he just acting out of self-interest? We wouldn’t want to see Ayn Rand played out again, so I would consider his motivations carefully.
People DO want to do good, naturally, all else being equal and if it comes at no great cost to them. You seem to point to this in your comment that very few people are without some amount of goodness. If these sacrifices the Striver makes turns him into a miserable person, we see an interesting tension that might just reflect reality! There’s no need to turn ethics on its head to make this point, no need to get all Randish.
Oh God, Ayn Rand … 😦
Thanks for your detailed response. I’ve got some new ideas I’m gonna play with now.
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