Talking Heads Syndrome

People TalkingThis is the latest post in a series of maybe a dozen, concerning the process of writing my current project, working title Chocotle. As a progress report, I’m finishing up chapter 18 now, which will put me at about 57,000 words, getting near the end of the Middle section. I am drifting a little, unsure about the forthcoming critical crisis and climax, but I have a rough idea of what needs to happen, if not how to make it so.

In the meantime though, I’m becoming worried that my characters talk too much. This is my first entirely non-genre project, so I do not have an external circumstance driving the action with its inexorable causality. My people are ordinary human beings being human. So they talk.

Talking is how the characters reveal themselves and convey important story information. The narrator, in this case third-person-close, usually has a strong part to play for story exposition. So I tend to rotate among narrative description, dialog, and thought balloons.

What I don’t have is much embodied action in the world. My characters don’t play basketball or climb mountains or run marathons. They don’t even go shopping or take the dog to the vet.  All they seem to do is eat in restaurants and talk in cars and hotels. Is it a problem? I think it is. They don’t seem very grounded.

Much of human life is about conversation. It’s what we do. Most jobs are about communicating all day. We go to meetings. We send emails.  At home we talk. At school we talk. Maybe once in a while, on vacation, we go skiing or marlin fishing, but that’s an exceptional event, not an everyday activity. I think my characters are realistic by talking all the time, but for a novel, it may seem too abstract.

I look at how other authors manage physical embodiment. Not genre authors, but more mainstream, or literary ones. In As I Lay Dying, for example, Faulkner has his family go on a road trip. That’s the main driver of events. They use temperamental mules to pull a cart, and they have horses, and they confront obstacles, like weather, fire, and hostile neighbors, but they’re on a mission to reach the next county to bury a casket. That’s the action driver that puts them in the world, in nature, riding horses, falling off carts, peeing in the bushes, and doing other embodied things.

My characters don’t do that. I could make them pee or run around the block, or ride a horse, but it wouldn’t be organic to my story, which is contemporary, mostly urban, with educated characters acting and talking rationally, for the most part. The road trip is a particular structure that forces embodied scenes. I think of the last half of Lolita, where Nabokov has Humbert tour the U.S. by car. That gives him unlimited scope for mental reverie and conceptualization.

In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike has his characters do things, often, it seems, just as an excuse to be embodied. In Rabbit, Run, Harry stops to join a pickup basketball game as he walks home from work. Later, he goes out for a pack of cigarettes and ends up driving all afternoon and all night, as far as West Virginia, then turns around and drives back. It’s a mini-road trip for no reason except to move the scenery. At other times, he walks, he climbs a great hill with his shoes off; he plays golf with the preacher. None of these actions have any intrinsic meaning. The story is about Harry’s character and conscience. But Updike keeps Harry jumping about so we always have a sense of him being located in time and space.

I’m not crazy about how Updike does it, either. Why does Harry drive all night to West Virginia, then home? No reason. He doesn’t even know. Some nonsense explanation is proposed that he has a desire to see dawn on the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s totally arbitrary and not convincing. He could just as well have had a desire to go to the moon. It was simply a mini-road trip to give Updike an opportunity to do extensive thought balloons, introducing us to Harry’s interior life. And that’s how I read it, as a writer’s device, not at all organic to Harry’s character.

Harry, and Faulkner’s characters, are relative dimwits, not particularly self- aware, so they can take spontaneous actions they don’t even understand themselves. No explanation is needed, or possible. My characters, by contrast, are well-educated and relatively self-aware, and wouldn’t drive to West Virginia for no reason at all. If you look at a self-aware character, like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, he doesn’t do much but drive a car, but his interiority is almost rich enough to sustain the pace. Almost, but not quite – Humbert still has the advantage of a road trip. But anyway, I don’t think it’s necessary to have un-self-aware characters to introduce non-genre action into a story.

On the one hand, it probably helps to choose a story structure that facilitates embodied action in the world, such as the road trip, or Find The McGuffin. I don’t want to show characters brushing their teeth and sweating and farting, just to reassure the reader that they are embodied. That seems contrived and I haven’t enjoyed it (e.g., Confederacy of Dunces). And I don’t want to have characters arbitrarily get up and climb a tree or go to work on a shrimp boat, just for something to do. Their behavior has to grow out of their genuine attitudes and concerns.

I’m stumped on this. My story is about relationships and meaning, and world-view. It’s not about finding the treasure or burying the casket. So my characters talk a lot. I put them in gardens, in restaurants, in bedrooms, in cars, and around dinner tables. But it always boils down to talking heads. Mrs. Dalloway got away with that somehow. You don’t see her going skiing and playing golf just to be in the world. She buys flowers and convenes a dinner party, and talks, and talks, and thinks.

But that was a long time ago. Times have changed. I think I need to get my characters into swimming pools, to funerals, into baseball games, performing music, playing squash.  All that seems wasteful to me right now. What they want to do is talk. But maybe on the next pass through I’ll give them more physical therapy.

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