Monday, February 25, 2008

Meet Our Faithful Companion

Much of my thinking with regard to The Honeythief has lately centered on levels of diction—not so much the narrative voice (about which I’ve talked a little here, and of which I live in constant fear of losing control) as dialogue as an expression of character. What makes any story work—including this one, to the degree that it does—is a plausibility of character and reaction.

bombardier beetle

I don’t mean realism, exactly; we’re talking about a seven-foot beetle-man who shoots fire from his hands, fa chrissakes. It’s a consistency, both internal and external, that comes only from a fullness of imagining. Quiñones isn’t just a seven-foot beetle; he’s a seven-foot beetle in a particular time and in a particular place, with a certain temperament and a certain profession and a certain place in society and in his personal social circle. And all of these things are going to affect his ethics and values, and thus his actions—because he will act in accordance with those values. If there’s ever a moment when the reader suspects that Quiñones, or anyone else, is acting in a certain way simply for the convenience of the author, or to advance the plot—then I’m dead.

Action is character. You may have noticed that I don’t spend a lot of time describing my characters—I’ll go on about the quality of the light on a mountainside, but I’ve never mentioned the color of Fiddlin’ Katy’s eyes, or her hair; green, for the record; and copper-red ringlets, loose around a heart-shaped face—and even less on bullshit backstory of the kind that “explains” character (e.g., “Quiñones gravitates towards the underdog because he himself was bullied when young”). Character isn’t something you explain; character is what you do, how you do it, how you talk, how you relate to other people. It is the choices you make, and how you act on them.

Character, in other words, resides in the world of the visible. It is shown, not told.

(It works the other way, too—character defines action; sometimes you’ll end up striking a whole section because Character B simply wouldn’t do what you’ve asked her to do. Character sometimes defines structure, too; the episodic nature of The Honeythief, f’rinstance, is in part because Pismire in so unsure of himself, and has a hard time making up his mind. I know where he’s going to end up, of course—but his character determines how he’s going to get there. When the two impulses are at cross-purposes—when the characters are disinclined to follow the dictates of the plot—the writing is a horrible slog. But conversely, when you bring plot and character into harmony, it’s a dream; the book seems to write itself for great perfect stretches.)

Dialogue, too, defines character—or is character, depending on which version of the proverb you prefer, not that it really makes a difference in the end. The point is, there’s a special kind of horror in the moment when a writer notices that all his characters sound exactly alike—that is, they sound like the writer himself.

I had a handle on Quiñones’s character fairly early. He’s swaggering and worldly, but essentially decent, and he’s got more of a big-picture perspective than either Pismire or Katy. Now, I usually write straight through, beginning to end; but right after introducing him to the manuscript, I skipped ahead and wrote about three pages of “Quiñones Quotes”—just a bunch of one-liners and little speeches, wholly out of context. Some of these would end up incorporated into the story later on, but mostly it was an exercise to help me define for myself his outlook and personality. I found him very likeable, and I thought he made a good foil for Pismire and especially for Katy, with whom he seemed to have an affinity.

And that was the problem; on re-reading Quiñones’s dialogue, I realized that he sounded an awful lot like Katy. And I thought that maybe I didn’t have such a handle on him after all.

The issue is the almost-showy elegance and eloquence of Quiñones speech patterns. He is a soldier, through and through, and it would be easy to fall back on stereotypical clipped soldier-talk—“That’s a negatory, ma’am, we’ve got bogies at four o’clock”—but Quiñones at least fancies himself a gentleman soldier. Like Katy he’s essentially self-invented, and his manners are mostly aspirational; like professional classes since time immemorial, he’s aping the aristocracy who will be his employers.

(The irony, of course, is that in this world the true aristocracy—the Sharing Peoples—are pretty inarticulate. Among themselves they barely speak at all, because they don’t need to; they simply understand one another. Mélif dialect is archaic to show that their development in the realm of spoken language is behind that of the typical Solitaire. Even Pismire, who’s far from a typical Mélif, doesn’t talk much, and isn’t a particularly eloquent speaker—except, tellingly, in his communiqué to the Regina.)

But even while Quiñones and Katy have certain socioeconomic and temperamental similarities—which is why they play so well off one another—I want them to be linguistically distinct; my unease isn’t with what he says, but with the voice in which he says it. And while Quiñones’s name, which initially sprang from a particularly horrible pun, does give him a sort of implied ethnicity, I’m not sure how useful that will be in shaping that voice. Adapting Spanish grammatical conventions to English prose is a dicey option, at best—without the full Spanish complement of distinctive verb inflections, the distinctive habit of dropping the pronoun quickly renders the prose incomprehensible—and I really have no interest in making him sound like Speedy Gonzales. So I’ll be doing some tinkering and experimenting over the next few weeks, and—this being a work in progress—you might see some quirks and flails as I find my way towards a solution.

And that’s the shape of my head today.

1 comment:

ThirdMate said...

That's a great paean to the relationships between character, plot, and language! Thank you.