Writing Characters II – Lacunas

In early November I posted an essay on my website (lannylarcinese.com) about my preference for “character driven” fiction – the deeper the revelation of character, the better. Of course, the writer reveals those insights by the spoonful and more artistic fashion than simply bopping around the character’s head in dense, interminable passages.

Along these lines, Faulkner provides a beacon: The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself. Such stuff is different from the more typical motives of survival, justice, or mere misguidance. I am a crime fiction writer because crime is the most recognizable and dramatic manifestation of mental and/or social and/or character disorder.

Many crime stories tell us something about the protagonists and antagonists, usually to establish motive. Often, as with noir, characters’ bleak backgrounds may cause their world-view to devolve into cynical actions or sketchy relationships. In many procedurals, the protagonist’s character may actually be enhanced by transcending the bleak aspects of his background – drug abuse, alcoholism, or cynicism caused by too much street life – and lead to uplifting or at least satisfying actions, like taking out the bad guy to save society.

In literary fiction, about which some say, “not much happens but a lot goes on,” the plot may well be the character’s journey from one state to another, e.g., an epiphany or a reconciliation. Such writing serves Faulkner’s dictum well. But for those of us who like action beyond the inner landscape, we crave character insights wedded to significant external events, e.g., where loss of life, limb, or loved ones are at stake.

I strive to get beyond the character flaw tropes of alcoholism/drug abuse/deprivation, etc. In deference to Faulkner, I think about spaces a lot. That is the fictional garden I like to traipse and to me, the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Examples: the space between want and need; between feelings of tribalism (which have survival value) and altruism (also has survival value); between anger and civility; between faithfulness and lust for others; between what we feel and how we act; between orthodoxy and flexibility; between self-image vs. from others; between laws and mores, etc. Each of these lacunas is fodder for conflict. They may exist within a single character or among many characters and are especially effective when they collide. No matter how such conflict is deployed, sparks will ensue.

The first draft of my novel, Dear Dad, They’re Dead (out fall of 2019 from Intrigue Publications) began as a vivid image of two high school boys having a rumble behind the gym. One pulls out an ice pick; the other, with lightning hand speed, snatches it from him and stabs him in the trachea with it. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. But at the keyboard, I asked myself, “Why were they there? What are their back stories? What would cause two boys to do this?” Like the Big Bang of a singularity and no small amount of dedication to learning craft, it evolved into an 85,000 word novel. It developed that both were nice boys who grew into good men, in fact became best friends. The story is about, among other things, the gaps between their initial circumstances as individuals and ultimate destiny, and the states of mind and bridging of gaps which let it happen.

Lacuna, it’s such a great word and opens so many story doors.