Gauthier, the protagonist in my World War II novel and the subject and angst of several of my posts, has some serious problems.
First of all, Gauthier is caught inside my New Book/Realist styled novel that is told by an omnipotent narrator who will not share all. (Insert Keith: "Huh?!")
Another problem: In true realist form, Gauthier is the product of his environment, both past and present. He is in a terrible predicament. A French homosexual art student now a member of the Hitlerjugend and living in Berlin with a closeted Bannfuherer...after his French mother's incarceration for helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Strasbourg. Say what?
And yet another problem: Gauthier's biographer (he goes by Randis) wants to stay true to his own brand of realist form: backstory over time, evoked only when Gauthier - or that hidden, eccentric narrator - sees fit to conjure. Randis like to leave crumbs, and then hit ya with the rest of the loaf later! But are crumbs the best way to go in describing Gauthier's past and present?
Introducing the Mother Complex
Since Gauthier's mother absolutely affects Gauthier's decision making and overall state of mind, how do I describe who she is and validate her importance -give her dimension- and still make this Gauthier's story? What can I do with a distant character who is possibly dead, certainly no longer physically nearby, yet is a constant force in almost everything my protagonist does? Should Gauthier's mother stay flat as the page she is written on and serve only as an asterisk in how she was once connected to Gauthier? Or, should I add chapters that go further back in time when she was in the present? Should I change the POV from close-third/hidden narrator to first person so that Gauthier can just sit a spell and spill all the backstory he deems necessary?
In my first drafts, I attempted to evoke some vitality into Gauthier's mother by introducing letters. Actually, the letters are written by Gauthier and sent to her jail. He never knows if she is receiving them, and he can only pray that she is. Imagine that! How lonely, right? On one hand, I think lonely letters bring validity to Gauthier's story in sharing his sad plight. On another, I thought sharing how Gauthier writes to her would reveal to the reader, if only in small doses, his mother's personality and the kind of relationship Gauthier had with her.
To Mme Brendel
I am on the train to a lecture, and I am near tears. My letter is shaken by the rails, but it would still look the same had I been writing at my desk. I cannot understand why you begged me to find you only after the war. What do you mean? I have read it a hundred times, trying to read through your letter, understand your true thoughts.
Did you fear that I would be incarcerated, too, if I tried to see you? That is what my friend thinks. The Austrian. All his actions since Nancy have been based on this assumption. I cannot know. I need to know! Whatever else you could have meant by it is beyond me and turning my insides out. My heart, it is racing towards an absolute collapse.
You will never believe the situation that I have placed myself. You need not worry for me – I am safe from harm. But, you will never believe my situation. I will tell all when you are released. I will sit with you down on your sofa and with Muscat d'Alsace and I will detail everything. You will be shocked and amazed and certainly amused! You will question my sanity, too.
I will never let you go again, like I had in Paris. I will put my foot down and insist that you never leave my side. I promise you that. I was not the man that I should have been in Paris. I will be now. You must listen to me and must do what I say -- I will never allow you to leave my side again. And I promise you I will learn how to dance to your swing and go with you to hear your jazz. You will not have to beg me to be your partner. I will put my reds on and dance with you in our living room until you fall asleep in my arms. I should have danced with you all those times when you asked. I am so sorry I did not.
There were about ten of these letters overall. At first pass with the Writer's Center of Indianapolis workshop, reviewers found the letters interesting. However, WCI reviewers clearly wanted to know more about the mother (and her situation) than what was revealed in the letter format. Although letters do add interest, the most they could do is slightly evoke. Reviewers suggested flashbacks in place of or in addition to the letters.
Flashbacks allow our characters to go back in time, back to an important scene that serve to characterize the protagonist or define the protagonist's challenges or flaws, or perhaps set the story's plot or serve to introduce new characters. Flashbacks are certainly not easy to write. Logical and creative transitions into and out of the scene are as important structurally as the flashback is to plot and characterization. (Heather wrote a helpful post on flashback transitions: Grammar Solves All -- Perfectly)
Flashbacks can also bring the "gone, dead, or missing" back to life, at least momentarily, and vividly. Gauthier's mother could be placed in real time -- if tucked inside a closed universe -- and become three dimensional whenever Gauthier has a relevant need or desire for her to be conjured. All Gauthier would need to do is have a few 'remember when..."moments of his mother during his surviving through the world of Nazis. Yet, I have resisted to write them in.
Actually, I have resisted writing flashbacks in the more traditional form of present (time-machine cranking up) > transition > gone/missing/dead are here > transition > return to present (time-machine wheezing down).
Instead, I am trying out a tailored flashback, of sorts, that fits into my existing New Book style narrative. I liken it to a momentary yet brilliant (as in crystal sparkles) flashbacking that occurs in Gauthier's mind as he daydreams while working his way throughout the obstacles I lay out for him in each chapter.
Momentary yet Brilliant Flashbacking as Realists Must Do
Gauthier's flashbacks are more like supercharged reminiscing. They can happen at anytime when Gauthier gets bored, or when he is reminded of his former life in Paris, life as an art school student, or growing up in Strasbourg...with his mother. Indeed, as time goes on, Gauthier finds himself flashbacking more and more, regardless of the moment at hand, even if in the middle of an argument, or when he should very well be paying attention. Whatever symbol or touch or sound or action that sends him back, Gauthier takes flight. Hopefully, the reader receives vivid and detailed flashbacks that help them understand Gauthier better.
As difficult as these moments are to write, and structurally some bend (hopefully not break) a few grammatical rules, I love this format because it accomplishes two of my Randonic rules with New Book style: Keep it narrated by a mostly knowing yet not completely telling narrator, and keep it lifelike...as in valid...as in real. Will this format work? Imagine how flawlessly interwoven such transitions need to be so that the reader is not distracted while both Gauthier's action and his flashback are working simultaneously. CERTAINLY, I am far from mastering it! Do I need to repeat that? Still, I have provided two work-in-progress examples in Randis Land:
I am opening myself up for FFI critical review. Comments anyone? Oh, I know I make life difficult!
Randy, I didn't have a sense of how important his mother is (I hope to write a post about foil characters soon, after protagonists, antagonists, and maybe others :).ReplyDelete
The realism flashbacks are an amazing idea. Not only does this allow room to develop his mother's character, but also this can show how G is escaping in his mind. Perhaps he escapes into his memories of happier times, maybe even in times of conflict and drama that he cannot adequately deal with. So he goes to his "happy place." This, as a technique, may be difficult, but this seems very realism and believeable.