I had a lovely morning today running a short story workshop, getting very excited by craft and also thinking about how stories, even when they seem quiet, slow burners nearly always intersect with the political. Tonight, thinking about this post, I remembered this, written by the inimitable George Saunders in his Story Club email, and I want to share part of it with you. If you’ve already seen it, I apologise, but I think it bears reading again (and again).
“In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable. Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account …
Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating …
What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful …?”
I take this to mean that in writing about ‘goodness’ (a whole raft of character actions) we make it manifest (‘muscular and useful’). And we can’t write about ‘goodness’ without also writing about the ‘monsters’. Within a single character there can be multiple shades of good/dark: humans are, after all, capable of all things. As writers, we get to explore this. As readers we experience and feel the truth of it. So check through you characters and ask yourself about their moral compass. Do they believe themselves ‘good’? Do their actions bear this out? Characters make choices about how they act or react. A story is about those choices and their consequences. Make a map of action and reaction in your story. What does it show you about your characters? Is it all reaction and no action? Is there a deeper pattern emerging, about their view of themselves in the world? And perhaps yours?
Don’t forget our deadline is 8 WEEKS AWAY! We look forward to reading your stories,