Brutal Necessity: Applying Pressure to Our Characters

This is the time of year when carpenter bees make their appearance as they hunt for wood on houses to drill into. Last year, Cathy and I purchased a trap which is essentially a block of wood with an entry through a couple of holes that provide no exit. The bees have no choice but to fall into a glass jar that screws into the bottom of the wood block. Last year, we didn’t catch a single bee, but this year we’ve caught a few of them. It’s proven difficult to watch them in the jar, knowing if we leave them there, they’ll cook in the sun. We’ve taken down the trap. It turns out we aren’t really committed to the process. . .that is until today when we saw three spots on our pergola where the bees were drilling into the wood. The trap is back up. Now we’ll see how truly committed we are.

This issue of commitment comes up all the time in our writing rooms. Not only is there the question of how committed we are to the writer’s life and all it asks of us, there’s also the matter of committing ourselves to bringing our characters to some sort of trouble and then watching them struggle to find a way out of their difficult situations.

Sometimes we make the mistake of liking or admiring our characters too much. Such affection can keep us from applying pressure to those characters. We may be all right with letting them get themselves into tough spots—I’m talking about the kind of spots where lives can change forever—but then we hesitate to hold their feet to the fire. We find a convenient way to relieve the pressure because we can’t stand to see how characters in dire straits. We fail to realize that trouble and the struggle against it can bring something precious to the surface.

Think of the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Her insistence on altering the route of a family vacation puts her, her son, her daughter-in-law, and grandchildren in the path of an escaped killer, The Misfit. O’Connor doesn’t make things easy for any of her characters. The grandmother tries to talk her way out of the trouble she’s found by insisting that The Misfit is a good person and if he’ll only pray, he’ll be able to find redemption. The pressure increases as the final extended scene unfolds. The tension builds until she says to The Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” At that point, she reaches out and touches The Misfit on the shoulder. This is the point in the scene from which nothing can be undone. The trouble the grandmother has helped create by taking the family on a wild goose chase to find a house she remembers from her childhood (a house, she realizes too late, that’s in a different state) has reached its highest point of tension. Resolution is only a beat away. O’Connor’s narrative keeps its thumb on the grandmother. She makes this final action, and the resolution depends on it. I’m purposely withholding the resolution of this story, although I doubt that very few readers don’t already know it. My point is this. The bees enter the wood block by virtue of their own instincts. If I unscrew the jar and let the bees go free, I relieve them from the fates their actions have created. I deflate the tension of the narrative.  If I commit to the process of the trap, though, consequences of the bees’ actions await. I allow the narrative arc to complete itself. That arc may be brutal and yet necessary.

We do our narratives no service if we’re too easy on our characters and the situations they create. As O’Connor herself once said, “I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.” Pressure brings these gestures to the light. The grandmother reaches out and touches The Misfit, and that ignites the end of the story.




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