Sunday, June 23, 2019

Unfinished Stories, Unfinished Lives

     Unless all the Marquee characters die in the final scene – Hamlet, anyone? – the story is inherently unfinished. Life goes on; people continue to age, hopefully grow, and probably have other interesting things happen to them before they die. But a story is supposed to feel finished – i.e., that it ends conclusively, such that at least some major aspect of the characters’ lives has been settled for good. How is that to be done, especially if the author knows that that’s not the case?

     As simple as it looks, this is actually one of the unsolved classical problems of the fictioneer. It’s one of the reasons I find writing this stuff so hard.

     Not long ago I posted a plaint about my inability to find fresh reading material that isn’t an element in a never-ending series. It was heartfelt, but it definitely went against the current trend. These days everyone writes never-ending series. The creator’s desire to tie the thing off can be thwarted by his publisher – or by his readers. It happened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, it can happen to anyone.

     In part, the unbounded series is motivated by its creator’s desire to economize on one of the most arduous of the fictioneer’s tasks: the creation of an attractive, plausible hero. Once you’ve concocted such a character, it can seem a shame to “waste” him. Moreover, such a character becomes your readers’ focus. Those who thrilled to your first opus about him will want him to return for further adventures. But there are other forces involved as well.

     What does the hero do after the story is over? Maybe he’s the sort that simply must have further adventures. In such a case, his creator’s hands are tied; his tale must go on. But maybe he settles down to “Standard Life:” marriage, suburban home, 2.4 kids, et cetera. While novels have been cast in such settings, it takes the talents of a Judith Guest to make them worth reading. So how does the writer convey to his readers the sense that “what follows would be too boring to read about, much less to write about” -- ?

     It really is an unsolved problem, Gentle Reader. And it keeps coming back to haunt me.

     A character with enough appeal to power a novel can be awfully hard to “put down,” fictionally at least. One contributing factor is the well-known phenomenon of Main Character Immunity. It afflicts more writers than not. Sometimes it compels an author to say, in effect: “Aha! You thought he was dead, but I was only joshing!” That’s what happened with Sherlock Holmes after Conan Doyle’s first attempt to put an end to him.

     I can’t seem to kill one of my heroes dead enough. The little bastard has just too much appeal. He keeps coming back, largely through my exploitation of open areas in his timeline into which I can insert more involvements. But at least that timeline is bounded by his quite definite demise, written unambiguously into the novel in which I first employed him. At some point – hopefully I’ve reached it already – he’ll stop popping into my narratives.

     And then, there are some heroes that are just too...too something. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is like that. You could hit him with a nuclear-armed cruise missile and he’d just fling it back at you. John Conroe is developing a similar problem with his characters Christian Gordon and Tatiana Demidova, the central actors of his “Demon Accords” series.

     There is something to be said in favor of the seemingly immortal hero, though. If he’s really that much more appealing than the norm, the writer can please both his readers and his broker with an endless parade of stories about him, at the price of a single spate of character construction, at that. I sometimes wonder if Tom Clancy’s series of novels about Jack Ryan, who single-handedly saved the world over and over, came to an end because Clancy willed it, or because Clancy himself passed away. (Note, however, that others have made use of Ryan since Clancy’s passing, assuredly with the permission of his estate. People want additional stories about the poor guy, so he can’t be allowed to rest.)

     But all things must pass. If we except characters such as Christian Gordon and Tatiana Demidova – John Conroe’s two self-Fallen angels of the “Demon Accords” series – heroes all die, just as we normal folks do. The problem is that no one wants to read about that. The writer has to shuffle the hero offstage in a fashion that mollifies those who’ve loved him – and the more they’ve loved him, the harder that will be.

     Just now I’m grappling with how to deal with several such figures:

  • Christine D’Alessandro,
  • Kevin Conway,
  • Larry and Trish Sokoloff,
  • Rachel MacLachlan,
  • Althea Morelon,
  • and several figures from the Futanari stories.

     And to add a pinch of salt to the wound, every now and then I’ll toss off a short story that prompts my readers to add a character to the list: Evan Conklin and Gail Kristof from “Sweet Things” are the latest such.

     Granted, characters too appealing to dispose of aren’t the worst problem a writer could have. But they can pose a trial to a writer who itches to set off in some totally new direction. Especially when he sees his bank balance running low.

     (Cross-posted at that other dive I run.)


pdwalker said...

First world writers problem.

(that's not a criticism)

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Well, yes.