Tag: narrative

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned. ¬†Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.¬† As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir,¬†On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.