My conversation with Lorin Stein was about the current state of American short fiction, an outline of the overarching qualities he’s noticed as editor of The Paris Review. Stein suggested that today’s literature—in an age when anyone can broadcast their thoughts and ideas using a range of amplifying platforms—has power because it frees writers to adopt voices and perspectives that aren’t their own.
When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to speak as someone else. Several writers expressed anxiety about representing other people, especially the challenge of making unfamiliar characters real. Angela Flournoy—who was named a National Book Award Foundation “5 under 35” writer shortly after we spoke—wasn’t sure she had license to write about Detroit, a complex city she has never lived in. Writing The Turner House taught her that no topic is off-limits, as long as you’re able to imbue characters with full human complexity:
It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and three-dimensional characters that people start to say, what right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.
At a certain point, you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and trust your own motives. You have to have confidence that you’re coming from the right place. You have to allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real. Not good, not bad, certainly not perfect—just real.
Easier said than done, of course—as Tania James can attest. As she wrote The Tusk That Did the Damage, she found her narrator, a Malaysian elephant poacher, to be flat and unconvincing. Then Peter Carey’s novel The Kelly Gang reminded her to loosen up:
Reading The Kelly Gang gave me the permission to be looser, more playful with the poacher’s voice, in spite of his grim circumstances. And Carey reminded me that when characters speak with the irreverence that comes naturally to them, they’re brought into sharper relief.
In order to move beyond my preconceived notions about a certain character type, I realized I needed to focus on what brought that individual person’s voice to life. I stopped asking the question, “What would a poacher be like?” and started thinking about language, especially its capacity for humor and playfulness.
From the beginning, my would-be poacher spoke from a place of conviction and passion and anger, but it wasn’t until I accessed these emotions with a bit of irony and sarcasm that he really came alive for me. Once I introduced that wry humor, he started to feel more like an extension of my personality. That’s when I lost the flat feeling I started with. In the beginning, my sentences were less messy, more lyrical, smoother. But until I relaxed and loosened up, the writing didn’t feel inhabited by a real, feeling person.
It’s a reminder that making characters or a scenario seem “real” doesn’t necessarily mean being “realistic.” In fact, a book’s most authentic-seeming qualities are often the most invented—and the things that are “realistic,” or plucked straight from life, can strike false notes. Mary Gaitskill, author of The Mare, pointed out this paradox:
In fiction, the things that are realistic or literally true don’t always feel true. It happens in my writing classes over and over and again: the thing that everyone, including me, picks out as unbelievable sometimes is exactly the thing the writer will say, “But it really happened!” And it probably did. But it means they haven’t done enough to make that incident enter the world of the story, which becomes a reality with its own logic. When something genuinely surprising happens in a work of fiction, you have to be very in the story, and very in the moment, to make the reader accept it.
What’s funny? “Find the victim”