On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. – George Orwell
I found this quote somewhere last week and it cracked me up. By coincidence, I’m working on a novel with this theme.
In my novel I channel a middle-age Mexican man with self-doubts. Preliminary readers say it works, and I’ll bask in the glow until my editor gets her copy. By implied consent she gets to say it doesn’t unless I can convince us both that my way works. One thing we never disagree about are the details I tuck into the story.
My favorite part of writing is developing a character. It’s the same for actors, in that we become our characters. For me, the best part is asking myself the nuanced questions that go beyond the “who, what, where, why and how” that some writing books suggest. Fleshing out a character always happens after the first draft, like when I used to sit across a cafe table with Robert, a friend who reads my early iterations. He’d ask me things like, “What is the lighting like in Esquival’s cantina?”
I’d answer without taking time to think about it, “It’s an ancient wagon wheel from the wood hauler’s oxcart. After the ox died at the age of twenty-six, the owner had no further use for the cart. A week before he died, he bartered the wheel for a few day’s worth of pulque and drank himself into a place where old men could still find purpose.
My friend would blink, expressionless, and continue. “What does the front door look like?”
“A heavy wooden door in the brilliant blue of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s robes, painted by the owner’s wife so everyone will know she is a righteous woman and a Catholic. Above the arch she added six gold stars that have kept their color even as the door has faded. Although it can no longer compete with the shouting lavender of the Jehovah’s Witness Hall at the edge of town, it is of no matter. The color satisfies her.”
Now Robert has moved away and the café sessions are no more. Now I ask myself these questions as I write. I’ve learned that the best details define the characters that own them. Every accessory serves the purpose of moving the story forward. Nothing gets in without carrying its own weight.
And, surprisingly, they all seem to have something to say about the struggle of man (or woman) to be good—but not too good and not all the time.