Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: January 2007

Character: the cake under the frosting

In the course of chatting with some friends about a story they’re working on, and giving solicited advice, I crystallized a few thoughts about character that I realize have somehow become second nature to me, so I figured I’d share ’em here. The story outline I was given was basically an outline of the plot: Joe goes to the store. Mary takes advantage of Joe’s absence to call her ex and plan a lunch. At the lunch, Joe’s co-worker, who has been following Mary, sees the two of them together and decides to follow her ex instead, leading to an amusing mistaken identity scene when the ex goes into the back door of the small bookstore in the strip mall where he works, and Joe’s co-worker counts the doors wrong, thinking he’s gone into the nail salon. Etc. I was also on a panel at a convention recently in which several people were talking about plots they wanted to write, along the lines of “my character is the best at what he does, so how do I make him believable without having him just solve all the problems and end the story,” to which I responded, “well, what’s the point of the story?” and got back, “Good question.”

My advice hinged around discovering the character underpinnings. The plots were fine and sounded like interesting contrivances, but hearing them without the character story hearing someone order a cake by telling the baker what kind of frosting and decoration they wanted. It’ll look right, but I have a feeling they might be surprised at what they find when they bite into it. Before you can get to the level of “what happens,” you need to worry about why it happens. Why does Mary want to get back together with her ex? What is Joe’s co-worker doing following her, and why does he switch to following the ex? Why is the nail salon next to the bookstore? You get the idea.

The difference between story and plot is, loosely, the difference between the cake and the frosting. The plot is what people remember about a book, but the story, the journey of the characters, is what makes the book memorable. It’s the foundation, without with the frosting is just empty sugar. Are there cases where that isn’t true, like, say, thrillers? Sure. I devoured all of Clive Cussler’s work back in junior high school. He writes great action with great settings. Do I remember any of his books as well as the Frederick Forsyth short story about the guy who hires a killer to get rid of the husband of the woman he’s fallen in love with? Nope. Both thriller writers, but Forsyth had a better eye for the characters that made his plot more memorable. Not to say Cussler wasn’t an enjoyable read; he was. And I’m sure there are people out there who read his work over and over and love it. I just think that stories with character journeys grip us harder and stay with us longer, and so when asked for advice, that’s what I give.

Review: Fudoki

Fudoki, by Kij Johnson
10/10, a pair of intertwined, magical stories set in 12th century Japan

Kij Johnson’s “The Fox Woman” was one of those books that I looked at a dozen times before picking up. I’m wary of picking up books just because they feature “fox” in the title, even though those are the ones that catch my eye. I did eventually pick it up and read it, and loved it. It does have foxes in it, magical ones, and it is about one of them falling in love with a human, and the frustrations and anguish we find when our desires lie outside our world, whether romantic or otherwise. Besides the beautiful story, it was set in a lovely world where magic is not common but not unknown, where a fox might turn into a human woman to woo a man, all woven into the delicate world of ancient Japan. It’s like a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro and Tim Powers, and if you’ve been reading my other reviews, you know that’s high praise indeed.

Why, then, did it take me so long to pick up “Fudoki”? It’s by the same author, set in the same world. I suppose that it was just that it did not come out until after I’d finished “The Fox Woman,” and so there was always another book to read. Thank goodness for Tower Records’ bankruptcy, which allowed me to grab “Fudoki” off the shelves of a closing Tower Books and read it this past month.

If you haven’t read “The Fox Woman,” you should start with that. Not only because it’s a slightly better book, but because a few elements of that story trickle into “Fudoki.” Nevertheless, each story stands on its own, and you don’t need to read one before the other. “The Fox Woman” starts with a fox; “Fudoki” starts with a cat. The title is the cat’s word for the family history that defines her. Each cat has a fudoki, in which she will one day take her place (the cat’s world is a female-dominated world, into which males flit in and out long enough to make kittens and cause trouble, and little more; perhaps they have their own fudoki). The cat’s story is being written by Harueme, aging daughter of a long-dead emperor, who tells her own story in the same notebooks.

The cat, eventually named Kagaya-hime, suffers a catastrophe and must leave her home, losing her family and her fudoki. She encounters various people, ghosts, and kami, spirits of the land, one of which gives her advice, direction, and the shape of a human woman. She remains very much a cat in temperament, though, even when she joins a small party which leads her to a larger adventure, all the while lamenting the loss of her fudoki while Harueme tells us her own.

The noblewoman’s poignant stories, and her admitted desire to live vicariously through the heroine she is writing about, form an unusual and compelling narrative. Johnson’s writing more than does this complicated and lovely world justice. As elegant, structured, and beautiful as the ancient Japan she describes, her words illuminate the palace gardens Harueme sees and the peasants’ hovels where Kagaya-hime stays with equal brilliance. All of the characters are remarkably detailed in a few brush strokes; even with the unfamiliar Japanese names, I rarely needed a reminder about which character was which. And I felt I knew many of them as old friends by the time the book was over.

The device of a story-within-a-story does nothing to detract from the immediacy of Kagaya-hime’s story. Johnson wisely pulls the reader into the cat’s story first, then allows the author to show her own story without disengaging the other. To balance and pace the two is tricky, but Johnson manages it perfectly. The ending of both stories is both touching and exactly right, a rarity that is worth cherishing (though not rare in her books). Fudoki is what its title implies, the tale of a life, and you will not be sorry to read it, only to see it end.