Friday, February 5, 2021

Unspoken Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Fiction and Memoir

In real life, people operate under unspoken agreements that try to keep the status quo--whether that status quo is calm or the opposite. I'm enjoying a winter novel by Frederik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove, that brilliantly depicts a group of characters acting in an unspoken agreement to preserve a town that's rent by scandal. Although a young girl is raped, there's also a hockey final coming, and the star player is the perp. Everyone, except a very honorable few, chose to ignore what happened and keep the team forefront. Backman ratchets the tension higher and higher until everything breaks apart and people have to face the falsity and injustice square on.

Unspoken agreements drive story. There's a real difference in how a character, or group of characters, "presents" to the world and how they really feel. The dichotomy is what creates that wonderful tension that keeps us reading.

So, to create strong and vivid characters, it's often helpful to understand what unspoken agreements they've made and are living with.

I call it an agreement because the character decides something is true--must be true--even if it isn't and reader know that very well, and agrees to operate as if it is. As the story goes along, the writer brings the character closer and closer to the reality, or truth, challenging this belief, conviction, desire or hope or fear. Slowly, it's proven false.

If you're a storyboard geek like I am, this trajectory can be mapped. It's actually very fun to do so! At the beginning, the agreement might be quite intact and solid feeling. As the story goes along, each event breaks down this agreement. By the end, even the character must see that it's not real. By the end, there is a new realization.

What are some unspoken agreements in story?

In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the opening scene shows an agreement: the narrator, a teenage girl, has charged herself with keeping her mother out of danger. Which is impossible because the mother is certifiable, as we later learn.

In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the agreement is loyalty to family above all else. This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger. Educated by Tara Westover has a similar agreement: family matters more than education.

In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family. Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.

In classes, I've talked about this agreement as a kind of false belief, what other writers call misbelief. It's the best coping mechanism the character knows, right now, and it's kept the status quo somewhat intact. Now, with the story beginning, it will unravel. By point #4 on the storyboard, the character will have to choose--stay with the agreement and decline or face its falseness and choose a new identity, transforming in the process.

Exploring the agreements in your story, whether memoir or fiction, requires knowing your characters. I like to start by describing the status quo that the story begins with. What does everybody put up with, to get along? What are the accepted beliefs? What does the character live by, in order to preserve the status quo?

It's kind of a motto for each character, and if you can write even a rough version, it will help you bring your characters to life on the page.

In all stories, there are small and large epiphanies where the character gradually realizes the agreement may not be all it's cracked up to be. Maybe a hint of that is early in the story, within the first third. I usually plan to reveal that doubt on the storyboard at point #2, about 75-100 pages in. It can be a small epiphany, or turning point, but to keep the story tension going, the character often denies the falsity of the agreement. At point #3 on the storyboard there's a bigger event that cracks the agreement open even further. Here's where a character renegotiates the agreement. A classic example is The Glass Castle, when the mother wants to move them to West Virginia, saying all will be well if we're with family. That's a renegotiation--we're not really breaking the agreement, we're just shifting it a little. Family is even more important. And that will damage the narrator even further.

Then, at point #4, the smaller epiphanies result in a major one. At this point, the character sees truth. In The Glass Castle, the narrator leaves her family and follows her brother to New York City. Her parents track her there, but she's different now, aware of the agreement and its falseness.

Backman's novel, Beartown, which I enjoy reading each winter for its brilliant depiction of unspoken agreements, the town loses its hockey stardom, but wins back its honesty.

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