I fell in love with Enzo instantly. Garth Stein’s book The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of only a handful of books in the last decade to impact me in a big way. The book is narrated by Enzo, the mixed breed dog of Denny Swift. Denny’s passion is racing cars. Enzo is an unusual dog, and we see everything in the book through his perceptions. Stein’s book has been reviewed and very well received, and it’s not my intention here to repeat the wonderful things that others have said about The Art of Racing in the Rain. I want to talk instead about why the story hit me the way it did.
There’s a line in the book that has stuck with me the last five years. Here it is: “Your car goes where your eyes go.” Said another way: “That which you manifest is before you.” I didn’t really get it at first. I read the line in the context of Denny racing on the wet race track, and thought well of course the car goes where the eyes go. Duh. Especially when racing in rain, take your eyes off the track for a moment and you might find yourself kissing the wall. I can be a little too literal sometimes. It took me getting to know Enzo, and his deepest, innermost desires (yes I’m talking about the dog), before I truly understood what those words meant.
Enzo is driven by his all consuming passion to complete his mission as a dog, allow his soul to do what it came to do, in the hopes of finally becoming a man in his next life. If you haven’t read the book, this might sound crazy. You’ll have to take my word for it that when you see things through Enzo’s eyes, it all makes sense. Enzo spends his life with that one goal in mind. He does everything in his limited canine power to help Denny, and those Denny loves, as he realizes this is his mission, what he was meant to do.
Denny isn’t as enlightened as Enzo. Denny is, in fact, more like most of us. He is a good man with hopes and dreams who is weighed down with the trials of life, the things we all have to deal with. The things that make it so difficult to keep the faith, stay the course, and any other cliché you want to throw in here to simply mean Achieve Your Goal. I won't tell you what happens to Denny. I want you to read the book.
When I finally realized the deeper meaning of “your car goes where your eyes go,” it was a light bulb moment for me. Seriously, that's what it was. Set a goal. Work toward it. Don’t quit. That’s all. Sounds simple, right? It’s not.
Not all goals are equal. There are short term goals (pass that test) and long term goals (get your degree). Life goals (become a doctor / lawyer / author / teacher, etc. Travel Europe. Sail the seas.). Generalized, ambiguous goals (have a happy marriage / be a good parent). We get the payoff when we are able to focus and strive and achieve the goals that are attainable and concrete. Harder are those goals that are more difficult to define; the secret, unspoken things we wish and hope for ourselves and the kind of person we want to be.
But the basic idea is sound, and applies to all of these. Now…I’ve done some reading, and I know there are similar concepts out there. The Law of Attraction. The Secret. Very interesting theories, but with a very dark flipside. If what we focus our energy on ultimately comes to us, then what about when we get sick? Lose our financial security? Get hurt or attacked? Did we draw those things into our lives? I don’t believe that. I do believe we all have the ability to steer our cars, work toward our positive goals. I also know that we each at times take a wrong turn, make the wrong choice, but there is no way I can reconcile the idea that when bad things happen to us, it is always because we have caused it. And I’m not going to get into the notion that what we’ve done in past lives dictates what happens in this life. That’s a whole different blog, on a whole different blog site. Honestly, I believe that sometimes bad shit just happens. No matter how hard we are focusing on the road ahead.
Maybe this seems a little like using the buffet approach to religion. Picking and choosing which parts of a theory I like and discarding the rest. Maybe that is what I’m doing. Of course I understand action and consequence. If I rob a liquor store, then I can't complain when I eventually get arrested, right? I take responsibility for my choices, even the bad ones. I could list a few wrong turns right now that have led me down dangerous alleys. But even having said that, it is not enough. As I said, sometimes shit happens. If I sit here and pretend that I can explain, through my own actions, why certain bad shit has happened to me or those I love, I’d be a liar.
I won’t lie. I am smart enough to admit that I understand very little about the way the universe works. I still have a lot to learn and hopefully many years in which to learn it. But I know this, without a doubt. The philosophical theme in this book, at least this particular theme (there are more; read the book!), is true much of the time. Your car goes where your eyes go. I know it’s true because I’ve seen it. It’s not infallible or flawless. But it is perfect in its own way: it’s hopeful and optimistic and it allows us the sensation that we are active participants in our own destiny. When it does work, it is amazing. Like, amazing in epic proportions. And when it doesn’t work, well, then we pick ourselves up and get back behind the wheel. Your car goes where your eyes go.
Here's what's so great about living in Michigan in the winter. This is fantastic writing weather. With record amounts of snow the past few weeks, I can't deny there is something very cozy and inviting about my little writing corner these days. While I don't have an office, I'm seriously thinking about getting one of those decorative room dividers (thanks Ann for checking the terminology!) to partition off an official bit of space. With or without the screen, though, it doesn't take much to make me happy when it comes to writing. A hot, sweet cup of coffee. A playlist tailored for the current project, varying day to day and even hour to hour. Warm cozy slippers. Quiet--oh that ever elusive Quiet--which is sometimes only found within the music streaming through my ear-buds. I confess I have a string of LED snowflakes draped around the curtain rod behind me, and I swear I write infinitely better when they're lit. And of course my writing cat Rico. Rico is almost always somewhere in the vicinity, and occasionally chirps at me--if a 22 pound orange Tabby can chirp. He likes to have the last word, and I usually let him. And lately, the snow. Three foot drifts piled up outside the door on the deck. An enormous snow hill in the middle of the cul de sac, as the plow has nowhere else to put the stuff. Beautiful blowing snow racing past every window. I love it. I can already hear the uproar as you read these words, especially if you live anywhere near me. But I really do. I don't love driving in it, and I'm not crazy about these insanely low wind chills, but the snow is a wonderful muse. So, tomorrow when I trudge outside to scrape yet another four to six inches off my car to go to work, I'm going to smile under my scarf and think of my words, my characters, and the story that waits for me. I can't wait to dive back in, surrounded by snow.
American Authors great song Best Day of My Life. Already loved this song, then heard it played during The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Now all I can think of listening to it is Ben Stiller skateboarding an incredible, impossible trek toward his nearly unattainable goal. Is it an exaggeration to say the song speaks to me? I don't think so! PLUS...you just have to love the band's name.
While deeply immersed in my current project today (see Other Works), I realized I was very aggravated with my main character. When I start a new story, I have a clear idea of how it should begin and how it will end, and a few of the major milestones along the way. I've never worked from a detailed outline. I do plot out a very loose chapter breakdown to keep the events straight, but I stress the word loose. The journey in the middle, what happens along the way, is the sweet gooey filling of writing for me. It’s the best part. But because I allow such freedom in my characters once I flesh them out, they sometimes behave in ways that I didn't plan. Sometimes they take a wrong turn. Sometimes I let them, as long as it’s in line with the character’s journey and basic struggle.
First of all, I should start by saying this isn't a new concept. Authors and scholars before me have explored the differences between consistently good and consistently bad characters, and their effect on readers. K. Maja Krakowiak wrote an entire dissertation on the effects of good versus bad versus morally ambiguous characters.
I’m actually talking about something different. In the books that I've written and the many that I've read, the best characters are the ones who aren't perfect. Because I’m not perfect. Nobody is. It’s part of what defines being human: trying to do the right thing, failing, and trying again. I believe most of us have good intentions. We know the difference between right and wrong, and we usually like to do the right thing. But sometimes it’s more fun to do the wrong thing. Sometimes it serves our own interests better to make the choice we know isn't right. And sometimes we do bad things because we don’t recognize that the choice we’re making is the wrong one, we feel it’s the right one for us at that moment.
One of the best parts of any piece of fiction is when you connect with a character. And almost as good as that connection, that instant recognition—I know this woman! She’s just like me!—is when we begin to live vicariously through the character. We see in her choices the same types of decisions we’d make in her shoes. We are invested in her success. Which inevitably leads to the beautiful agony when we realize our character is heading down the wrong path. We have to find out what will happen, and if and how she will eventually be okay again.
We all know the feeling of reading a book or watching a television show or movie and wanting to reach into the story and shake that character. What are you doing? You’re going to screw it all up! Don’t you know that? Think of the consequences! Watching the story unfold and being powerless to guide the character back to the right path is frustrating—and exhilarating, as long as the behavior fits the character and the context. After all, there’s a certain undeniable pleasure in seeing a favorite character make the same bad choices that we may have made ourselves. We’re not alone. And it makes that character that much more relatable.
I confess I’m behind on my reading list lately. So as I've been thinking of examples of good characters who do bad things, the two that keep popping into my head aren't literary characters but television characters. Well, Pretty Little Liars was actually a book before it became a TV series. In my own defense, this isn't technically “my” TV show. It’s my teenage daughter’s current favorite and I admit I get sucked in from time to time. And then there’s Gilmore Girls, which sadly ended its run a few years ago. I introduced Gilmore Girls to my daughter, and we've watched the entire series together. Twice, I kid you not. Each of these series features a very likable main character who falls unquestionably into the “good” category.
In Pretty Little Liars, Aria is one of four high school girls who try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of their friend. Aria is a character that is easy to like, she is concerned about her friends, she tries to be a good daughter, but her downfall is in the affair she is having with her English teacher Ezra. The connection begins at the start of the series, and has persisted into the fourth season. The ramifications of the pairing are obviously very serious. Ezra stands to lose his job and possibly his entire career if the affair is discovered. The damage to Aria would be less dire but equally as traumatic to a teenage girl. So, as a viewer, every time the two are shown on screen, I want to yell at them to knock it off. But. At the same time, I want the affair to continue. Because of the possible consequences. I want to see what will happen. I want to watch the outcome, and I want to see how Aria might recover if and when the affair comes to an end. Because, even though she makes bad choices, I still like her.
Rory Gilmore in the acclaimed series Gilmore Girls is a very good girl. Like, goody-two-shoes good. She’s an excellent student, a loving daughter, a conscientious part of the small community where she and her mother live. Even the smallest occasional missteps her character makes are quickly recognized and rectified by Rory. Her conscience is very functional. So when Rory engages in an escalating affair with her ex-boyfriend Dean, who is now married, I really want to smack her. But. Again with the but. The behavior is not out of character, as much as it might sound so. The story line is well written, and we see the buildup. We see Dean in his sad marriage with his bossy, manipulative wife. Not that that makes it okay. But. We've also already, by this point, watched the several season long love story between Rory and Dean, and we know that Dean never stopped pining for Rory. By the time the two make it to the bedroom, I’m fighting with myself over whether to be angry at her or give her a high five. That’s good character development, good story telling.
I didn't set out to give two examples that involve illicit affairs. Obviously there are a multitude of ways in which an essentially good person, or good character, can make a bad choice, not just those involving sex. We all make the occasional bad decision, and most of them involve boring, mundane things that don’t cause any terrible damage. Which just proves my point. Nobody’s perfect. This is life. It is messy, ugly at times, thrilling and painful and real. So when we find life mimicked in our entertainment, of course it draws us in. And of course we want to see the flawed heroine (or hero) come to her senses, right her wrongs, and prove that she is still Good. Even when she does bad things.
What books or movies (or other TV shows) come to mind when you think of good characters who do bad things? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
It might be that it’s the beginning of a brand spanking new year, full of promise and unlimited possibilities. It might just be that my fictional characters have been invading my dreams recently, which usually means that I need to stop and pay attention to what they have to say. No matter which reason, it struck me today that I am fascinated with the concept of good versus evil. But in my life, and in my fiction, it’s not really good versus evil. It’s more good versus bad. Super-ego versus id. Conscientious versus careless. Right versus wrong.
So many of my favorite books explore this theme, including my own, The Secret Remains. Three very prominent, albeit widely varied, works of fiction come to mind. You’ll have to bear with me, as my tastes are nothing if not eclectic (see my playlist under the “About” tab if you don’t believe me). I’ll list them in order and then delve lightly into how the concept plays out. One of my favorite books ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Another, and I’ll always be grateful to my friend Rocsana for turning me on to it, is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The third isn’t a book at all, but a movie: Disney’s Frozen.
Let’s work backwards. If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, you should. I don’t care how young or old you are, or if you enjoy Disney movies or princess movies or not. The movie has everything: magic, comedy, romance, suspense. What I noticed the second time my kids made me take them to see it is that there is a permeating underlying theme of good sister versus bad sister. This really should have hit me the first time around, but I must have been too dazzled by the goofy snowman and talking reindeer. Elsa is the older, standoffish sister burdened with a terrible secret that drives a wedge between her and her younger sister Anna. Anna is the classic sweet, naïve, faltering younger sister who only seeks the approval of her older sibling. After ninety some minutes of (don’t worry, no spoilers here) struggle, anger, fear, remorse, and finally love, the two sisters realize that neither is quite what the other one had thought. Elsa learns that the tools she needs to break down the walls keeping her apart from Anna lie within her, not in her capacity for fearful magic and power, but in the simple ability to love. At the same time, Anna discovers that her own bravery and strength are more than enough to save the sister she has always strived to be like.
In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, good versus evil isn't only a theme, it’s the foundation the book is built upon. Set in 1939 Nazi Germany, Zusak’s characters are real and heartbreaking. Death is a character in and of itself, and death is neither good nor evil, but impartial. The evil, or bad, in the book is apparent, and rarely even actually named; we feel it on every page, in every thought that crosses protagonist Liesel’s troubled mind. The good is in Liesel and in the lives she touches: her adoptive parents (both abrasive and loving), smitten best friend Rudy, tormented, heroic survivor Max. We hope (cautiously) throughout the story for the triumph of good over evil. We know the real life outcome, of course, but my fear and hope for the people that I came to love in this book kept me turning the pages into the middle of the night. And it’s not lost on me that even when good wins a few of the battles, evil isn't cancelled out. It’s still there, a part of life, an inescapable presence lurking in dark corners, waiting.
I know this has gotten wordy, and I apologize. One goal I have for the new year is to improve at brevity. I’m working on it, I really am! East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a powerful tale that follows the struggles of two sets of brothers. Parallels between East of Eden and the biblical Cain and Abel are abundant and well documented, which really serves to highlight how basic and longstanding the idea of good versus evil/right versus wrong is. I've read East of Eden twice. Once about fifteen years ago, and again more recently. The genius of Steinbeck is that he knows there is no light without darkness; no goodness without strife. His characters, the first two brothers Adam and Charles, and later, Aron and Caleb, are not just good or just evil. While it’s true that Steinbeck paints each man slanted obviously more toward one side than the other, we see the good and decency within the troubled sinner, and the gross misdeeds within the moral man. I can’t think of any other tales that illustrate the beauty and failings of the human condition quite the way this one does.
Which brings me to my own work. I humbly admit that I am no Steinbeck. Not even close. But I do believe that compelling fiction does one thing above all others: it gives us someone to root for, even as we question their choices, grow frustrated with their missteps, and cheer them on when they make that big gesture that defines which side they are really on. I do know that my work is written on a canvas that is already colored with both good and bad, right and wrong. Many times the good and the bad lie within the same character. This is the case with The Secret Remains protagonist Nicole Murdock. She is conflicted, the product of a violent upbringing, the victim of her own weaknesses, but she is also hopeful, resilient, driven and smart. Nicole must overcome her own history to uncover the person she wishes to be, the woman she knows she was meant to be. She has to realize that she is better than her father, stronger than her mother, and that the secrets of the past do not control her future. Satisfying fiction should leave us with the thrill of knowing we picked the right team, and the lasting taste on our tongue of that team’s triumph of good over evil.