Friday, 1 April 2011

A is for Angry Young Men



It’s easy enough to say a character should be active, driving the story forward, have a goal etc. but what if he isn’t that sort of character?

A lot of young male writers that I read and critique in the various writers’ workshops I belong to, write about young male characters who don’t know what they want, who haven’t decided what their goal is, who don't care about anything. These writers want to write a story of discovery. They want to write about how to figure out which are the important things. They want to rage against the ridiculousness of life, in no particular order.

They want to write about these things because life doesn't conveniently offer up a neat, pre-packaged plot to give existence meaning and direction. That’s what they’re interested in, because that’s what they feel about their own lives. Certainly people have written books about such characters, so why not them? If it reads slow or aimless, then it’s literary fiction. It’s character driven. It’s intentionally mundane to reflect life. But how do you stop it being boring for the reader?


There certainly are great works of literary fiction that are slow, pondering, aimless masterpieces.

The problem is that although that kind of story is very easy to write, it is very hard to write well and it can be end up reading as tedious and trite. He liked the girl but didn’t know what to say, so said nothing and missed his chance. Painful authenticity or boring non-story?

The truth is this kind of story is very much a viable project, but not for someone who is actively experiencing it. It’s like writing a first book about a man who writes his first book, gets it published and has to deal with what it’s like to be  a success/failure as an author. That’s an okay topic for a story, but not for someone’s first novel. As a second novel, fine. You have the experience of going through that process and even if the story isn’t based on those specific experiences it will inform the writing. But as a first book you have no idea what you’re talking about. It will feel fake, especially when compared to a similar tome by someone who really has experienced it and come out the other end.

Yes, but what about imagination, the power of making shit up? Nobody knows what future societies or alien worlds are really like yet they still manage to write about them. True, but those kinds of stories still speak to our human, present-time sense of self. 1984 isn’t about predicting the future. Lord of the Rings isn’t about magic spells. You don’t need to understand hyperspace to invent a form of interstellar travel, but that’s not what the story is about, that’s just set dressing. If the captain of the space ship doesn’t behave in a way a leader would behave, even though he’s a Xlartian silicon-based life form, nobody’s going to buy it. A reader knows when something rings true, and when it’s just someone taking shots in the dark.

Writing about not knowing what you want is something you should do only after you have discovered what you want to do and done it.  Then you can look back on that period of your life when you were blundering around (or ‘right now’ as I like to call it) and draw on it with the proper perspective.

In the mean time write a story about a guy with a goal. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got one yourself, you’ve had them in the past, you know how it feels to really want something. Remember that feeling and just use your imagination.

37 comments:

R.M. Hepler said...

Hmmm. definitely food for thought XD it's along the lines of 'writer write what they know' or however that add-age goes.....

damyantiwrites said...

Interesting post...I can see how people would want to mimic life in their fiction, but that's okay till the time the reader is tempted to toss the book on the wall across. Happy A to Z!

Nicolette said...

Happy A to Z month! Good first post!

the writing pad said...

Some excellent points here - it's a bit like watching a TV drama/film, where too much is left to improvisation. Characters stammering and stuttering, and never really coming out with what you know they're dying to say may be realistic - but it can be exasperating / tedious for the viewer and often fails to drive the story forwards. Great blog by the way! Love the writing insights, delivered with clarity, and providing much food for thought.
All best
Karla

Madeleine said...

Interesting. I would say that rather than character needing to be angry, they need only to have some personal conflict and I guess those you describe do because life isn't going how they'd like it to.

BTW I shall have to check out Cormac McCarthy :O)

Trisha said...

I too prefer stories that aren't prepackaged "oh! that's what I need to be doing!" I like to see characters develop in unexpected ways but they do need to develop. If they're just stuck in a rut I don't want to read that.

Even if they get worse...at least that's some kind of progress ;)

I'm almost done reading the novel "Grotesque" by Natuso Kirino, which features a number of characters who just have crappy lives from the moment they're born. And it's not that they're underprivileged for the most part, it's that they never find a good path. Maybe they do find their path, and it's meant to be a crappy path. Anyway, it's been a very thought-provoking read.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I think it can work to have a main character that starts of aimless and unmotivated (a bit like the narrator of The Great Gatsby) as long as the characters around them are a sharp contrast, then they make things happen to the reluctant protagonist.
This is thought-provoking, it obviously takes more than a lack of plot to make a novel literary. Good points.

Ellie said...

You've give me a lot to think about!

Ellie Garratt

Dan said...

Good Post. It made me think immediately of Holden Caulfield. Also, if you think about it, Hamlet fits that mold, too. In fact, his lack of action drives the conflict and thus, the story.

Dan

Lauracea said...

Happy A-Z from me too. Excellent post with lots to think about. "How do you stop being boring for the reader"? It's my everlasting question.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I know, that is a good question. Wish I had an answer.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, those aimless characters... I think the authors will have trouble selling the character without a specific motivation... on the other hand, angry and overreacting... now there is some interest in THAT!

L.G.Smith said...

Yes, everyone wants something. Not being able to get it right away is what makes the story. Nice post.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

CassaStar's main character was an angry young man, but he had set goals of what he wanted in life. Or rather, what he thought he wanted.

Tamara McRill said...

Interesting post. My first thought was that if I wanted the mundane, everyday life would suffice. Then I realized the extraordinary is also all around. Which led to reading to be entertained and gain insight. So...what you said. ;)

Laura Josephsen said...

It would be hard to write a character that doesn't want something. Sometimes it's just what they think they want, and that changes as the story goes along. Sometimes the goal is more immediate, even if they don't have a sweeping life goal.

Thanks for the post!

Paul Joseph said...

One of the reasons I like writing YA is because teens NEVER know what they want. As a teacher, I can tell you that the kids in first period couldn't tell you what they wanted for lunch that same day. My approach is always to focus on the situations a character is experiencing, and I develop their mood and characteristics accordingly. I try approaching it psychologically. I also try to live life through my characters as much as possible to feel their needs, though many think that just makes me psychotic :)

Ann said...

I have often wondered about this too. Great post

Ben said...

Good point you make. But I just slightly disagree. Look at Kevin Smith, he's a slacker that never really figured out what he did and kind of surf the wave of life. His most popular works detail the joys of slacking and taking life at it comes. If you want to paint it as frustrating struggle (hence Angry Young Men)yeah, you need to have outgrown that phase. But existential void is not a pain for everybody.

Rebecca Dupree said...

Ugh, I agree with you. Boring, plot lacking stories are never a good read!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

You know, listless young men is pretty much how they are in real life, but that is so boring in a book. I shake things up a bit by throwing obstacles at him left and right. Like a rat in a maze!

♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

Name: Luana Krause said...

There's a place for reflective type stories, but something has to happen for a good read. Good literature is action packed: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Christmas Carol, Little Women, the list goes on and on...

Melissa Bradley said...

Excellent post. Angry, lost young men are viable as characters with stories to tell, but it takes a skillful writer who's not in the throes to polish it up and give it the necessary direction.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Good question. I guess you have to have characters with in-you-face personalities. They will be more interesting that just loping about.

Interesting post, Mood.

I like it.

Michael

Jessica Bell said...

Learn to craft your prose so it's awe inspiring? :o)

Jessica @ The Alliterative Allomporph

mooderino said...

Thanks so much for all the wonderful comments. As many of you have said, there is certainly room for, and examples of, listless young men in fiction (Holden Caufield and Hamlet were two good suggestions). My point is it takes a deft hand to draw them well, not something I would advise an inexperienced writer to try until they'd banked a little time in the cockpit.

@Trisha-thanks for introducing me to "Grotesque" by Natuso Kirino, the only Japanese authors I've read are Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, always looking to expand my horizons. Now I just have to find a copy...

Paul Joseph-I would suggest teens are defined by what they DON'T want to do (anything you tell them to).

@Ben-Kevin Smith goes the other way and revels in it. His expert knowledge of his subject (pop culture) makes him the ideal person to write about it. Most people know similar stuff but they only gain that kind of info from external sources (like Kevin Smith) while he actually generates it himself which is why it isn't boring or cliched. Also, humour is a good tool to use, but not one available to most serious young men.

Jayne said...

I think everyone has an aim of sorts, even the drifters have a reason for drifting - it might not necessarily be a dynamic reason though. But someone would have to be very sure of their craft and the story they are trying to tell to go down that road straight away. Great topic - lots to think about!

Spacerguy said...

Fascinating. I can see the light. Thankyou for this inspiration, Mooderino.

Monti said...

Wow! What an insight and something more to think about.

Thanks for commenting on my blog.

Monti
MaryMontagueSikes

lesleylsmith said...

This post is thought-provoking. I'm not sure I agree entirely, however. Writers should go where the Muse takes them. As you say, Mooderino, there have been many masterpieces that were lacking in, shall we say, plot. A really good writer can write about anything! :)
Cheers!

mooderino said...

@lesleysmith-I agree, if you're good enough the muse is enough. But most writers aren't at that level, especially when they first start out. There are exceptions, of course, but often that hope that a writer has that he is one of those exeptions is more to do with a reluctance to do the hard work. Masterpieces don't fall out of the pen fully formed.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I never thought about that having never been an angry young man. You've made me consider my own sons, two of them very goal driven and not angry at all and one still looking and yes, angry. I've encouraged him to put his energy in writing. Wish he would.

jabblog said...

Good point! Everyone has a point of view but it is difficult to make the expression of an opinion appealing to everyone . . . dilemma! The old truism holds true - you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Rachel Giesel said...

This is an excellent point. I've been having issues with my main character, who is a girl but still applies to this, as she didn't have a real goal. But I've worked it out and this post confirmed what I've planned. Thanks!

Good luck with the A to Z Challenge! I'm looking forward to reading what's to come!

P.S. Your blog is beautiful! I love it!

Heather Henry said...

Reading your blog makes me wish I was a writer, but eloquence is something I am lacking. I do love a good story though. And I am learning A LOT, this is awesome.

Enjoying your A-Z's so far! :)
Thanks!!

McKenzie McCann said...

I think if it spills out and sounds good, then more power to you. It's very difficult to stereotype, because every story is so different.

Langley said...

Good post. Holden Caulfield is an excellent example.

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