Writers Prejudicing Readers: Profiling is Wrong!

Today's Guest post comes from Mr. Marc Mattaliano.
 

Writing since I was little, the best thing to describe Marc Mattaliano is his analytical nature that knows no bounds.  Intelligence is defined as what you know, while wisdom is defined as what you get out of what you know.  My personal experiences have been slight, but I have gained so much from each and every one of them by asking questions, constantly breaking things down and wondering if my choices have been the right ones, that I consider myself wiser than some who have endured far more than me yet are completely unwilling to question anything.  When it comes to writing, despite having three full-length books (one self-published, one almost ready for queries, and one in need of major updating), my work may seem amateur to some, but I’ve come to find that everything I put together these days is extremely intentional.  A lot of people say they don’t want to die with regrets.  Personally, I love my regrets.  They inspire me to do things better next time.  I’m 30, born and raised in NJ, 100% Italian, and I’m a lot harsher in words than I am in person.  Enjoy!
Read some of Marc's writing here:  https://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.aspx?bookid=72031&pdept=Bookstore%20Homepage&pfind=browse 

Writers Prejudicing Readers:  Profiling is Wrong!

Hello there!  My name is Marc Mattaliano, guest author temporarily posting in place for Katie Salidas, and as I tell many people when I first meet them, I’ve been writing fiction recreationally since 3rd grade.

Well, all right, I don’t tell everyone that, at least not when we first meet.  That’s because I believe what happens in the present affects a person’s view of you to a greater impact than telling someone your life story seconds after a first handshake or wave.  One’s past may have a huge influence on their identity in the present, this is true, but the other school of thought about pasts is that they’re just history!  “Yesterday don’t mean diddly-squat.”  They’re way back there where you came from, what’s the point of discussing them further?

To show the other side first, I suppose some books make more sense delving into the minutest details of a character’s past within the first 150 pages, given certain circumstances.

When I was in high school, I read Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire for a school project.  Wasn’t bad, characters definitely had an older, more European style; however I got through it and enjoyed it to a fair degree.  My parents getting wind of my fascination with vampires and Anne Rice, they bought me Anne’s Vampire Chronicles, a five-book collection ranging from Interview all the way to Memnoch the Devil.

Having read Interview, I decided to travel next into Book 2, The Vampire Lestat.  The beginning really had me hooked.  A tale about a snarky, modern day vampire in a rock band?  Me, an initiate to vampire culture and new lover of rock music?  Color me thoroughly intrigued!  After the first few pages, we traveled far back in time to when Lestat was a young boy, growing into an adult.

I don’t know if it was Anne’s poetic and theatrical use of language, or if it was the many time jumps, but unfortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.  I reached maybe the 100 page mark (if even that far) before giving up entirely.  I may have tried to pick it back up and restart it, but I just didn’t have the heart to once again dive headfirst into such a bottomless deep-end with only limited ability to claw my way back to the surface.

Since Lestat was such a massive part of Interview, and Anne was clearly setting up readers for some fairly lengthy journeys from there on, I can at least respect her desire to fully go into every aspect of Lestat’s life that she could.  For every subsequent installment of the Vampire Chronicles, Anne basically had, in Book 2, an autobiography of her favorite character to reference, and interestingly, that was the underlying first-person purpose: that it was written by Lestat as an autobiography.

In this case, Anne was justified in writing Lestat’s story this way.  It was done purposefully.

I also attempted in high school to read Salem’s Lot, a Stephen King classic that I was told also dealt heavily with these new creatures I had discovered.  However, the beginning 50-100 pages were so involved in the life of some kid getting bullied and so many other seemingly irrelevant details, that again, I wasn’t inspired to read to completion.  I knew going in that the story was going to lead to bigger, more action-packed things, and it was taking forever to get there!

What is the point of setting up all this backstory if I have nothing in the present to apply it to?

One thing I believe an author needs to do conclusively when telling any solo-standing story is establish an effective present-time baseline and work in that time effectively before leaping backward for flashbacks.

If you met someone for the first time and gave them your name, and they proceeded to provide their name, followed by the hospital where they were born, the church or place of worship where they were baptized/christened/whatever, the kindergarten where they fell in the schoolyard playing kickball and sustained that microscopic scar on their finger, the middle school where they flunked their pre-Home Economics course, the high school where they dated the captain of the French Club, and the college where they played lacrosse…you would never want to speak to this person ever again.

Most of the time, first meetings involve a short recap of what’s been going on lately.  Went to a movie, hung out with friends, checked out the county fair, went apple picking, long day at work, things like that.  Reasonably superficial things that give a person some skeleton framework of a routine and personality.  After all, would you tell someone you just met for the first time that your dad’s dead, your mom’s dating everyone in the state, your sister’s in jail, your brother’s on the lam, and you grew up in a gutter?  Probably not.

You meet someone for the first time and want to mention one huge thing that happened many years ago, that has 90% to do with who you are now, fine and dandy.  In fact, scroll up and take a look at the beginning of this blog post for a perfect example of how it’s done.  I mentioned one thing, quickly segued into what I believe currently, then used past examples to explain.  *Pats self on the back*

Unless it’s a book’s main purpose, life story details should be drawn out, spread like fertilizer over the whole piece to make it grow.  I want reasons to care about where a character came from, and I want to know who a character is in the present, before an attempt is made at cramming their entire history down my throat.

If you asked most writers (unless they write primarily for some weekly KKK, Black Panther, Neo Nazi or Nation of Islam newsletter), they’ll tell you that they aren’t prejudiced.  Unfortunately, giving away too much about a character’s past too early prejudices me into making certain assumptions about what kinds of decisions they’ll be making later in a story.  And most of the time, those assumptions end up being wrong, causing me to feel like a downright idiot for falling for such a long, drawn-out, dedicated ruse.

I’ve become so attached to the events of this person’s past to the point where I feel like I know them.  Now, in the present, I expect them to do something, because I know where they’ve come from, but oh look, the author surprises me and has this character do something to fight the nature the author worked so hard nailing down in the beginning.

Honestly, I want a character’s choices and pathways to be up in the air when I read them.  I want their decisions to be almost limitless!  Later on, when I know more about their past, I can take into account how they’ve overcome, or succumb to, the natures their pasts have created for them, and make different anticipations based on what I’ve taken in.

Frankly, pigeonholing a character by going too deep into their past too early is a lot like prejudicing someone you meet in the real world, based solely on what they tell you of their past.

For instance, I tell you all about a character who has considerable military training, then recount the dozens upon dozens of firefights they’ve survived and about how they’ve carried wounded partners miles to receive medical attention, then put this character in front of a burning building with a baby inside.  What do you think is going to happen?  Too easy!

Furthermore, if you’re busy telling me all about a character’s past, and I’m not all that intrigued by how incredibly harrowing an account it is, then I’m not going to end up getting to the present-time story where the real nuggets of the tale lie.

However, if you show me a character getting into sticky situations in the present, and those sticky situations are interesting enough to literally drag my ass through the story, practically against my will, there will be plenty of slower, more methodical opportunities in the story to expose where a specific character came from and how they got to where they are in the present.

I hate it when a story is clearly not being told in a character’s present time, and it’s just assumed that telling the story of someone’s childhood or formative years shows just how deep and interesting a character is.  It’s one thing to tell a tale of young people actually living out their formative years, and their formative years are the bulk of the story.  It’s another thing entirely to play up how important a character’s past formative years were, when in reality, they weren’t all that special or unique.

Fact is…everyone has sadness growing up.

Think back for a moment.  You remember when you were a baby.  Notice…I’m not asking you, I’m telling you, and don’t act like you don’t remember, I know you do, think hard!  You remember how you felt playing with something, dropping it on the floor, and feeling like you were never going to see it, hold it, touch it, or chew on it ever again.  I guarantee, someone out there has written a story harping on that very sadness, and it probably led to bloodshed, explosions, Armageddon, etc.

Suffice to say, given that all of us have felt that way at one point during our development, that’s a pretty lame and unoriginal way to develop a character.  Granted, there are more unique ways to do it, but even many of those fall flat and hearken to stories that have already been told.  Guy went to jail, girl was abused, kid was orphaned, yadda yadda.  And it’s not like any of these pasts are wrong to give to a character.  They’re perfectly fine and acceptable.

The problem is simply this…I would much rather read or experience an interesting story from a character’s present, later find out that the concept for their past is somewhat clich√© but still manages to explain why they behave in certain ways…than have an author sell me a character’s past like it’s something special, when in reality, it’s just a tale told far too many times.  I’d rather take in scant details about a character’s present tense, come up with a prediction about how they’ll act, and find out later what happened in their past to factor into their decisions, rather than know every step a character’s taken to get here, only to see them either act completely out of character or do exactly what I foresee to the very letter.

Because let’s face it, if you can’t come up with a good enough tale to tell in a character’s present, why should I care about their past?  If a character’s past is told first, in some flowery, pleasant-smelling way, but it’s really the same as lots of other people out there, what makes me think seeing this person walk around in their present is going to offer anything unique?

As many writers know, characters are only one aspect of a good story.  You can have a tremendous character built, but if you can’t come up with compelling circumstances for them to get involved in, it really doesn’t matter much at all.

But if you had to choose, which is more important?  Unique characters or unique circumstances?  Stay tuned for my next post on 7/6/11…

Comments

Anonymous said…
Really great article with very interesting information. You might want to follow up to this topic!?! 2011