Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Novel and the Short Story Compared

Something that has always interested me is my proclivity for writing short stories. It began because I would write failed fantasy novels about young heroes who could do anything (and therefore a whole lot of nothing), and this fact would depress me, so I switched to short stories.

Though, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate, because I also began to write poetic fluff descriptions for awhile (the name of this blog refers back to that, in some ways), and those were always short because of what they were--insubstantial, lacking any character or real point of reference, existing only for my unskilled hands to put words together in ways I thought, at the time, were pleasing.

There came a time when I decided that understanding my characters was important. But I’m getting a tad ahead of myself. I wanted to say that I think different people experience their characters differently. My sister, for example, made up a large cast of characters/friends she would interact with and talk to, literally out loud. They weren't imaginary friends, because she didn’t pretend they were real, but that didn’t stop her from interacting with them.

I never did that. I never had an imaginary friend. I did have a friend who had an imaginary bird, but that was as close as I got. So when I approached writing, the characters always came to me as an extension of self. I created “the fantasy hero flawed with perfection” because I craved that perfection, I think. I wanted to live through them.

I don’t know how my “poetic fluff description” phase enters into this. Maybe it has something to do with reaching outside of myself (finding the perfect interior world flawed) and yet trying to create a perfect external world. Neither way works, of course. I still can’t separate myself from having characters who are an extension of self, but what I can do is give them real flaws--flaws that I further identify with. It’s a strategy that has worked.

But, on the topic of story length, I think this aspect of having a whole cast of characters around you (as my sister did) relates very easily into the realm of novel, whereas my intense identification with fictional characters, (so intense as to make them extensions of me), led to shorter works by necessity. I’ve realized that in some of my longer work, the secondary characters did not deserve to be called that, for they were merely cardboard cutouts propped there for my lead to talk to.

In a short story, of course, this is excusable, because you don’t have time to introduce secondary characters. But in a novel, it is a vital skill to learn (one that I am still learning myself).

Next blog update will be Wednesday, I think I’ll try updating on Wednesdays and the Weekend.


Faith said...

I REALLY like the notion of a character plagued (or flawed) by a predilection toward perfection (not perfectionism?) by which I take it in this case you mean our natural desire to be able to match the external to our internal realities? (as opposed to simply a controlling mindset).
The desire to live out at least some of our imagined realities as a form of play acting (which can be pretty sophisticated too!) versus the ongoing conversations that make up thought--bits of unfinished actual conversation as well as hypothetical interactions we'd like to have....
These can be a source of inspiration--
between our inner dialogues/ selves and the myriad official/ unofficial realities that swirl around us?
Maybe there is the same trap for both--becoming self projecting only?
Maybe the vitality of secondary characters will depend, then, somewhat on their questions/ on the demands their presence makes dialogically or more simply, the force of their projected inner conversations on the created world of the story.
The novel gives more space/ time for these conversations to come to a point...rather like the seagulls Dan and I once saw from our Ocean City MD beach front hotel balcony--I giggled and continued to laugh and guffaw as they dove in, hovered in the morning breezes, jockeyed for position foremost briefly getting all my attention even while fighting wind currents to gulp the merest scraps of bread--characters also vying for position in a longer work till their dominance finally fully asserts itself and is played out against the force of the wind/ trajectory of the story line.
Like your girlhood friend with the imaginary bird pal, characters can circle around our heads; we trail them with our imaginations; birds in flight.

Meredith said...

Excellent comment, mom :P

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