LNH: Onion Lad #9

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu Jun 15 10:47:07 PDT 2006

Jesse Willey wrote:
> > Um.  Wow.
> >
> > Willey made a very fundamental mistake here when it
> > comes to using
> > first person.  And that is, if you're using first
> > person-- if you're
> > putting us in another person's head-- _don't_ make
> > us hate the person
> > right off the bat.
>   Strong emotion... ANY strong emotion is a sign of
> good writing.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA... oh, you're serious. :-)

By that reckoning, STAR WARS EPISODE ONE, GIGLI, and SALO would stand
as the greatest films of all time.  Because the strong and pulsing
loathing I have for those works would qualify as just such an emotion.

But note that I didn't say that your writing was bad.  I'm not making
any kind of value judgement in these reviews, as my aim is to focus
attention on the tools of writing-- structure, dialogue, word choice,
rhythm-- and how an author uses them.  When I say something like, "this
was a mistake", what I really mean is, of course, "In my opinion, this
is a bad choice".  I simply eliminate the "in my opinion" clause
because, (a) it would be monotonous, and (b) it weakens the strength of
my argument.

But I'm not arguing that something is bad, I'm not assigning grades.
I'm just pointing out what I notice about the author's choices, and
what I think of those choices.

So, I never said that you were a bad writer, or that you were incapable
of conjuring strong emotion.  I just think the emotion you conjured
runs counter to your intentions.  And I understand the reason why you
did it-- to show complexity.  The problem is, at least for me, this
isn't any more complex than a goody-goody two-shoes.

When I talk about characters being moral, and about my preference for
heroes to _actually_ be heroes, I'm not arguing for simplicity, or
arguing against complexity.  But if things are going to be simplified,
I'd rather it err on the side of good than on the side of nastiness.

Someone like, oh, let's say Jesus, for example, is much more complex
than someone like Gandhi.  Gandhi, as we know, was not the sainted
figure of Kingsley's protrayal, but rather a controlling household
dictator, a doddering idealist (he thought that by writing Hitler a
letter, he would end the holocaust), and a dirty old man who drank his
own urine and slept next to nude teenage girls.  And bringing up these
facts-- which don't sit well with his supporters/worshippers-- is what
passes for a "complex" characterization these days, be it in biography
or fiction.

You see, for me, this "dirty underwear" school of writing is NOT any
more complex than the Ben Kingsley Gandhi.  In fact, it's just as
simple and shrill, only it's an anti-hagiography.  And while it makes
for salacious reading, it doesn't make for a fulfilling one.

Now consider Jesus.  Here we have a man who is not just a bed of
contradictions (another fallacy passing as characterization these
days), but rather made of stronger stuff: the son of God, the moral
authority, righteous and powerful and awesome.  (If these aren't your
particular religious beliefs, then let's just treat him as a fictional

Here is someone who does the right thing because it is right.  Here is
someone who is tempted-- by Satan in the desert, by every-day life--
and rejects it.  Isn't that more interesting than someone who lets
their power corrupt them, someone who succumbs to temptation?  Here is
someone who could save his own life with a word, but stands mute,
sacraficed in gory pain for the good of all.  Isn't that interesting,
isn't that inspiring and more complex?  Isn't that what a hero should

For me, personally, any version of the life of Christ is going to be
better reading than the life of Gandhi, or the Hundred Twenty Days of
Sodom, which, by Willey's argument, is a better work (it _does_ illict
a much stronger emotion) and features more complex characters (because,
you know, rapists and murderers and torturers are so much more
interesting than heroes).

Just because something illicts a strong emotion, doesn't make it worth
reading.  I'd rather curl up with a mild little novel by Updike than
some ugly and inhuman work about "life as it is".  Because ugliness is
not what life is.  There's a lot more to it than that.

That being said,
>   My vision for Teryaki Chick is an intelligent,
> snarky, sarcastic woman who has trouble expressing any
> sort of positive emotion.   She is so uncomfortable
> caring about anyone that if she finds someone who
> actually gets close to her-- and still likes her
> afterward-- she tries to push the person away and
> convince herselves that that person doesn't mean shit
> to them.  She casually wants to make the world a
> better place but is a little cold when it comes to
> taking action on things outside of what she considers
> her sphere of responsiblity.  She helps others simply
> out of potential benefit for herself.
> Maybe not a heroic person, but I wouldn't say they
> were villains either.  She doesn't want to harm
> anyone.   She's amoral, not immoral.        /

Jesse's aims are noble ones.  And a character like this could be a
very, very interesting one, very compelling, if done well.
Unfortunately-- for me, at least-- this isn't the character that comes
across.  And what is at fault here is Jesse's particular choice--

>    People have lots of layers of thoughts.  I know
> Freud said two... but there are many more.   When I
> write first person I stick only to the 'surface' layer
> or dominate layer of thought.   Because the other
> layers of thought that all people have are often
> contradictory or things about ourselves that we don't
> want to be true.

-- and I want to say that this choice is well thought out, for what it
is.  That Jesse has made a conscious decision, and that it's one that
makes sense when applied to this character.  At the same time, it makes
for a flatter interpetation of that character.

Jesse's writing is fairly external: it depends not so much upon
emotional states or interior moods as it does physical reality, WHAT
happens WHEN to WHO (whom?).  The problem is that first person is best
utilized, in my opinion, for interiors: for self-doubts, for opinions,
for thoughts, for constantly and subtly-shifting emotional states: for
a unique voice, to show us what is different and new and startling
about this person, to put us into direct contact with another

But by using first person with what is, essentially, a chase/action
sequence-- an external piece of writing-- it works AGAINST the
strengths of first person, and also AGAINST Willey's aims.  For a
character like Teri to really come across, we need a little distance.
We need to observe her true self when she thinks no one's looking.  We
need to hear her say one thing and see her do another.

And this distance-- this external POV-- plays _exactly_ to Willey's
strengths, if only he'd slow down his plot train long enough to include
those moments. :-)


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