Social responsibility and character

{ Thursday, January 10, 2008 }

I've been thinking more about Tulia, the character from The Sidewalk Artist. She's a white, college-educated woman in her mid-twenties who is not yet financially independent of her rich boyfriend. Her pressing dilemmas are (1) how to end her relationship with a man who has paid for her extended vacation in Europe so he can cheat on her in her absence and (2) getting past her writer's block.

The thing is, given the character's background and those problems to solve, it would make for a distracting read to weigh Tulia down with the baggage of Pressing Social Problems -- discrimination, poverty, melting icecaps, whatnot.

How does a writer decide how socially aware to make a character, how politically informed to make a story? Not every enjoyable book is written by Doris Lessing, after all. What if your main character is in fact a woman who has enjoyed social privilege to the degree that her story-at-hand is unencumbered by inequities? Are you as a writer held accountable to at least point this out?

No, I don't think so. I grapple with it - but I don't think so. I think the writer is responsible to stay true to the character and the conflict. Writing a novel is hard enough without worrying about its value to society with every word. And you can't just glue-stick the social context into a character's dialogue or situation. But I also think the writer as a human being needs to be aware of any absence of social context. You can write a fairy tale with integrity, but you should know that's what you're writing. You should know, above all, what contract you're making with the reader. This, too, should be a choice, and not simply the easy road.

I grapple with this because my main character is a woman in her mid-thirties, in the south, in the early 1970s. She lives in white society, but could not possibly as the widow of a college professor in a town geographically divided by race be unaware or unaffected by its social force.

Does race have anything to do with the story of her grieving her husband or caring for her somewhat emotionally neglected niece? No. Does it inform the context of her life? Absolutely. Does the swirl of national politics and culture (Nixon, the ERA, the beginnings of environmental activism, just to pick a few and that's not even getting into music, fashion, film, and pharmaceuticals) affect the outcome of the drama in her two-week story? No. Would it inform her thought and the thought of all the people around her? Yes.

So how do I decide how much context the reader needs, and for what purpose? I suspect that most of the answer lies in how I learn to provide the context -- whether through dialogue, her thoughts, through settings, or more obliquely, through the descriptive language. I need to work out some guidelines, some formulas for myself here. That's my homework for the rest of the month as I move from detailed sketches of scenes into writing the action and dialogue.

Anyway, I've made a choice. Although I could isolate her story from the context of the times -- it would be at least as readable; her conflict (which I haven't spelled out here) stands on its own solely in the context of her family relationships -- I don't want to. I want to write a different kind of book.

I want the reader not to even realize where the context is coming from, but just to be with my character within her context. So although dialogue may be one tool I use, don't look for any, "So, did you watch the Watergate hearing yesterday?" lines that establish time and place. If you find anything like that when I'm finished, please feel free to point at me on the street and shake your head in sympathetic pity at my shortfall.

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