Friday, November 9, 2018

When One of Your Characters Is an Institution: Writing about Racism, Politics, and Other Large Subjects

Tom is writing a novel about a fellow physician, but one of another race who lived in a time of great political and personal challenge.  He attended my weeklong retreat last January in Tucson and we worked together on building the storyboard for his book.  He has plenty of events to make the book tense and full of action (lynchings, KKK threats, and more), but one of his biggest concerns has nothing to do with any of the outer story.  He sent me a great question this week about racism and how to depict it in his story.

"In my novel," he writes, "Dr. Alonzo Clifton McClennan is the protagonist.  But I think of the antagonist as not a person, but an institution:  the racism, the anti-abolitionists, the Old South itself. If the antagonist is not a person, but an approach to life, how do I go about portraying that character arc?"

He agrees that he can represent the institution by the KKK's grand wizard and his company of night-riders who threaten Dr. McClennan--a great scene I remember reading in Tucson showed the doctor being threatened on the road as he tried to minister to a man who'd been lynched.  

But if these characters are only representatives of the bigger antagonist, the institution, how does Tom show any changes, any growth, that's part of most characters in a novel?  Can he?  Should he? 

Tricky territory for writers, and even trickier for Tom, who straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, since he's writing about a real person.  

Usually, as a writer and writing teacher, my first advice is to humanize the antagonist away from stereotype.  Rather than all-good and all-evil, find the true ground of everyone being a mix, more of one or the other.  Each antagonist who comes into the story needs to be real to us, not just a representative of an evil institution such as slavery or the aftereffects of it.  Tom is doing this quite successfully in how he depicts those who threaten Dr. McClennan's life each day--and his writing is stronger because of it.  If a character is shown to be human, yet does an inhumane act, the effect is much more powerful for the reader and we believe the protagonist's suffering, even identify more with him.  So that's the first step--take the greater institution and break it into bits, into people that live by its reality, and how they make sense of that in their lives.  Not an easy task.

Especially not easy if the writer has a mission in the story:  to prove something, to stand on a platform and remind the reader of it.  What I call "platform writing" can creep in to anyone's work if the mission takes over the craft.  If you, the writer, are more concerned about getting a message out than sharing a good tale.

Unlike nonfiction, which has a lot more liberty to stand on a platform and educate readers, fiction suffers from this.  The reader expects to be drawn into a dream, and any sense of author intrusion ("are you paying attention to this message?") sweeps us out of the dream of the story.  Instantly, and often irrevocably.  We won't re-enter.

Tom's working hard to avoid this.  He needs to trust that his characters will deliver the message via their actions, decisions, dialogue.  But he also has to stay vigilant to avoid depicting any of them as a stereotype, because it's less effective emotionally, and the message and meaning of the story will suffer.  

The best way to study up on this is to look at other books written about life in war zones, in different cultures battling for survival.  So many master writers have gone before us, and reading their work closely can educate us on how to bring in "institutions" as characters.  Toni Morrison's novels are an excellent first step that I'd suggest to Tom.  How does she depict such a force in someone's life, and show a good person living in intensely beleaguered times? 

The most successful antagonists, as you humanize them, will change in some way during the story.  This seems almost impossible to imagine, when considering they represent the worst of humankind in institutions such as racism, Nazism, and the like.  But skilled writers do this all the time.  Consider the German soldier in Anthony Doerr's novel, All the Light We Cannot See, who "represents" the institution of Nazism.   Doerr gives us a look inside this young man, so by the end, when he helps save the protagonist, we believe the change.  That's an excellent character arc.

There's much less likelihood of an "institution" changing enough in fiction to have a character arc, but those stories don't revolve around institutions as much as characters.  And characters do change.  

If yours don't, find a mentor in one the authors cited above.  See how you might humanize even the ones you personally can't abide.