From the Fiction Workshop: Week 3

We’ve been talking quite a bit in the fiction workshop about the necessity of a story arriving at a surprising and yet inevitable end. We’ve talked about how to build multidimensional characters by paying attention to their contradictory impulses, and how to defamiliarize a character or a situation by allowing a misfit detail to arise. All of this asks us to keep an eye on the mysterious. By this I mean, being on the lookout for the essence of a character or a situation that is in some way unsayable, and, therefore, in need of the story to dramatize its energy.

To that end, we stayed with Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House yesterday and looked at a chapter called “Counterpointed Characterization.” In this chapter, Baxter takes to task the conflict-model for the structure of a short story. That is to say, the protagonist pitted against an antagonist; one person wants something, another person wants something else. Voila. Conflict. Baxter argues that stories often don’t work that way. He says that conflict can actually be very slight in a short story, and that often counterpointed characterization creates the tension.

By counterpointed characterization he means the pairing of characters who “bring out a crucial response to each other.” When that happens, as Baxter says, “A latent energy rises to the surface, the desire or secret previously forced down into psychic obscurity.” Therefore, Baxter argues, instead of asking the question connected to the conflict-model story (“Will the protagonist get what he or she wants?”), the more appropriate question for a story that depends upon counterpointed characterization for its tension is, “What’s emerging here?'” To this, I’ll add that our interest in characters and their situations in a well-crafted story almost always comes from wondering what aspect of character or situation will show up at the end of the story, having worked its way up through whatever denial or facade the character has constructed, to be that additional element of truth, surprising and yet inevitable, that gives the end of a good story its resonance.

In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” two sisters share center stage. Maggie, the slow-witted but lovable sister, lives at home with her mother, who narrates the story. As our narrative opens, Maggie and her mother are awaiting the arrival of Dee, the beautiful, articulate, and upwardly-mobile sister. The two sisters are all wrong for each other, and for that reason, they make a good pairing for the tension of the story. Notice, though, that they aren’t complete polar opposites. Although very much different, they’re still of the same blood and they recall the same ancestors, family customs, etc. As Baxter points out, a short story writer has to be a good matchmaker, and if the match is too simple the resulting story will be, too. For that reason, it’s good to pair characters who, though different, also have some common ground. Think of Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple. A neat-freak and a slob. Polar opposites. The stuff of comedy in this case. But Oscar is a divorced man, separated from his ex and their children. Felix is living outside his  home, fearing that he’s on the verge of becoming the ex-husband. He and Oscar, then, share the loneliness and regret of men who no longer have their families, and that’s what deepens their characters and their situations, and the gravity of their loneliness works its way up throughout the course of the play. In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker gets similar mileage from the pairing of Maggie and Dee, and a mother who must make a choice. Dee, upon arriving for her visit, asks for some of the family quilts. She’ll hang them on her walls, she says, pointing out that if Maggie gets them she’ll put them to everyday use and wear them out. So we have the right pairing of dissimilar characters within the same family, and the tension that results over the request for the quilts and the mother’s decision to give them to Maggie. The character whom we imagined might be overlooked, is the one who rises to the top by the end of the story, by virtue of her goodness and her appreciation and knowledge of family history. The more intelligent, more glamorous, more successful Dee is left out in the cold.

Think of any story that you admire, and see if the appropriate counterpointed characterization makes possible the interest that you have in that story. In our workshop yesterday, thanks to Baxter’s thoughts and his examples from “Everyday Use,” “The Misfit,” and “The Dead,” we kicked around ideas for how a third character in the student stories we discussed, could be put to use at the catalyst to whatever shifts between the two main characters. Often in a good story, a character maintains a certain idea of himself, and he finds himself acting from behind that facade in his interactions with another main character.  The entrance of a third character can cause that facade to crumble. Emerging, then, is the truth of the character that he’s either not been aware of or has been trying to conceal. Think of Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and how his evocation at the end of that story, causes everything to shift for Gabriel and his wife, Gretta. Gretta’s story of how Michael, years ago, stood in the rain to profess his love for her and then died soon after, makes it impossible for Gabriel to maintain the facade he’s constructed for himself. The passion in that story points out Gabriel’s own lack thereof. He’ll never be able to think of himself in quite the same way.

The lesson in all of this is the interesting dynamic that results when the right pairing of characters exerts pressure until something emerges that wouldn’t otherwise. It’s that “something” that usually gives a good story its resonance.



  1. Ian on January 24, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Interesting. When you asked us to think of a story that we admire, I thought of the novel “Plainsong.” In thinking about the “common ground” that the characters share – I thought about Tom Guthrie and the McPheron twins. Here are characters that seem different (an educated family man and two uneducated brothers who have never been with a woman). But looking at it further, Tom’s wife has moved out of the house. Moreover, Tom is struggling to keep his sons close, just as the McPheron twins are struggling to keep Victoria close. This adds (spoiler here) more power to the final scenes where Victoria returns home and Tom’s sons literally spend the night walking home. I’m rambling. But the point is, your post got me to see a story I love in a new light. So thanks for posting!

    • Lee Martin on January 24, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Ian, thank so much for this good comment. You’re on the money with the way those characters are counterpointed. They’re different and yet of the same cloth as far as the preservation of “family.” Their interactions bring out crucial responses in one another. It’s been a while since I’ve read that novel, but I tend to recall that even the two brothers are counterpointed in an interesting way. This especially comes to light in the sequel, EVENTIDE.

  2. Dillon on January 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Hmmm . . . After our conversation last night, I started thinking again about “Sweethearts” by Richard Ford. In this story, Bobby, the ex-husband, shows up at his ex-wife’s, for a final meal of sorts. Bobby is about to turn himself in for armed robbery and needs sustenance — in this case, a breakfast of eggs, sausage, and a side of toast. Of all people he is to spend his final meal with, he has chosen — or circumstances have at least chosen for him — his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, Russ. This setup, of course, makes for conflict in and of itself. Ford, however, creates further tension by sketching the men as polar opposites. Bobby is brash and spontaneous, not in control of his emotions in any way. Russ, on the other hand, is almost a zen master. He rarely loses his cool, even when the two men almost come to blows.

    And what allows this meeting to take place at all? What keeps Russ from kicking Bobby our or at least leaving the room? What, in other words, keeps these men together, serves as the glue that binds them? Russ sympathizes with Bobby. Russ was once like Bobby. He has had his own “troubles”. He knows, perhaps intimately, perhaps tangentially, the call of the dark side. This allows the tension to build, much more slowly. It also further highlights the differences between each man, in a way that would not be possible, otherwise.

    What’s more, Arlene, Bobby’s ex-wife, whose decision whether Bobby stays or goes lies ultimately in her court, is drawn as a polar opposite to Bobby, as well. She is understanding and sympathetic, though not quite as zen as Russ. Still, her and Bobby’s differing philosophies, on how a life should be lived, creates palpable tension, in a non-plot matter.

    Probably zillions of other examples are floating around out there, but this one sprang to mind most at the ready.

    • Lee Martin on January 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Hey, Dillon,

      Thanks so much for your astute comment. I’m a big fan of Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” which contains that story, “Sweethearts,” and you’ve see clearly how so much of the tension comes from the smart grouping of characters who rub together just enough to bring out crucial responses. Of course, there’s still that narrative of taking Bobby to turn himself in to propel the story, but as you’re seeing, that plot isn’t enough to give the story resonance. That comes from the combination of characters and Ford’s generous vision of the world that allows him, chiefly through his narrator, to see the humanity of people, even when their lives are imperfect.

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