Why Should I Care?

I’ve been told by more than one person that I have a song for everything. That is, for almost any situation, I can recall some obscure song lyric that captures that situation’s essence, or enhances the experience thereof. There’s probably at least one song that applies to any occasion. I just seem to know more than my fair share.

quadThus, when I was thinking about a title for this post, it shouldn’t surprise you that I settled on song lyrics. In fact, the lyrics of two songs from “Quadrophenia“, the classic album by The Who, came to mind. In two different songs from that outstanding concept album, there are lines that ask, “Why should I care?”

I’ve been asking myself that question lately regarding my reaction to fictional characters. As I alluded to in my previous post about “Peace Like a River”, some books have characters that are so real, so sympathetic, so readily identifiable, I simply buy into them as real people and I care about what happens to them. Further, I want to know what happens to them once the story (movie, book, play, short story, whatever) ends.


The short answer is that I have no idea. I would like to know, however, because those are the kinds of characters I want to write. A story populated with those kinds of characters is easier to write. They have a will of their own. They move the writer along rather that the other way around.

A collection of flat, one-dimensional characters have no place to go and no reason to go there. They have no motivation, no purpose for being. Who cares what they do? They’re deadly dull. They are dead. Who wants to read or write about them?

We could learn a lot by thinking about ourselves in those terms. If we have no depth, no purpose, no absolute motivator, we’re going to lead a pretty dull existence, more than likely swamped by our own self-interest.

Recently, someone who performed a test-read of my first (and, so far, only) novel said she couldn’t stop thinking about the protagonist, a young woman in Haiti. That’s about as high praise as I could want and more than I expect, yet I feel the same way about her and the rest of the characters.

Having rewritten the book in part or whole several times, I’ve probably read it a dozen or more times. Maybe it’s my familiarity with the characters, but I’ve come to (in some weird way) love and care for them. I’m so pathetic in fact, that I cry every time I read certain poignant passages.

It happens all over the place with me. In movies, for example:

  • I’d love to follow the relationship of Sam and Annie (and Jonah) after they finally meet at the top of the Empire State Building in “Sleepless in Seattle”. Will they be married? Where will they eventually live, Seattle or Baltimore? Will Becky,  Greg, and Suzy all hang out together? Sadly, Nora Ephron is gone so I’ll never know.
  • I want to watch as George and Nina Banks raise little Megan. (“Father of the Bride 2”)
  • Is there any hope of redemption for Harry Caul after trashing his apartment in “The Conversation”?
  • Where does that long road lead for the tramp and the gamin at the end of “Modern Times”?

And those are just movies. What of books like “The Rosie Project”, “Winter’s Tale”, “Gilead”, “Claire of the Sea Light”, and, of course, “Peace Like a River”?

(This phenomenon appears to be a “chick thing”. If you Google “fictional characters”, you’ll see what I mean. I’ll have to live with that, I guess.)

This is why I love movies with “follow-up” info before the credits roll. I get to find out what happened to all those fascinating players in “Remember the Titans”. Those are real human beings, so there’s some excuse for me in that case.

Strangely, it doesn’t matter if the characters are the creation of some writer’s imagination. I still wanna know what happens to them. That’s why I’m relieved to see where the lives of the members of The Wonders (not the One-ders) lead them in Tom Hanks’ vastly under-appreciated “That Thing You Do”.

That extra information can make a funny movie even funnier and more memorable. The roller coaster relationship of Robert and Mary is just as nuts after the movie ends in Albert Brooks’s hysterical “Modern Romance”, another hidden gem and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

starsI’m not alone in my mania. This pointless passion is one of the key elements in John Green’s wonderful book, “The Fault in Our Stars”. Without Hazel and Gus’s quest for the next events in Van Houten’s “An Imperial Affliction”, the story is left incomplete. But then, they are fictional characters, too. And I want to know what happens to Hazel! How long does she live? What happens to Isaac? Argh!! Nested frustration! I want to know what happens to fictional characters who are trying to figure out what happens to fictional characters.

I really care about these quasi-people. I just don’t know why.


Maybe I should stick with non-fiction.

Peace Like a River

PLARThis new blog being primarily concerned with writing, I thought I’d start with an homage to one of my favorite books, “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger. As one reviewer put it, this book “serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with.”

The reason it’s fresh on my mind is, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading it for the fourth time. It’s weird, isn’t it, to read a book more than once? When we do that, we’re doing more than searching for the end of a cracking good story. If you already know the butler did it, something else must be calling you back to a commitment as significant as reading a 300-page novel.

We read books multiple times is to drink in the prose, to spend time with old friends we know well and want to know better, whose fate (for some odd reason, which I’ll scribble about in a later post) we care about. The writing in PLaR is so vivid, so crisp, so beautifully crafted, I would regularly stop and reread a passage as if I were a sommelier tasting a fine wine; to roll it around as a delicious taste that I wanted to savor as long as possible. Or a song that never grows old.

A few such snippets of Mr. Enger’s prose, in all its glorious Midwestern resonance:

That night Swede and I lay somewhat breathless under a hill of quilts. For drafts, there was no place like August’s farmhouse; you could roast under such strata and your nose still cold as a glass knob.

There’s nothing like a good strong meter to make a poem mind its manners.

I succeeded in worrying about this escalation business for a good day and a half before worry died as usual, at the hand of routine.

Good advice is a wise man’s friend, of course; but sometimes it just flies on past, and all you can do is wave.

So thoughtlessly we sling our destinies.

Winter was a train crawling north.

I won’t pretend that reading those brief lines out of context and without knowing the narrator will drive you to the library to pick up this book. But really, if you haven’t, you ought.

The same reviewer I quoted above also said, “He’s the type of writer that other writers read, and die a little.” While I’m a writer, I can’t say I died reading it — I’m here, after all, after four passes through that would-be valley of death. — but I know (I feel) what he means: Compelling plot, musical prose, lifelike characters… Mr. Enger has them all in a way I could never attain. This is a near perfect book. Rather than depress me (OK, it does depress me a bit) it motivates me to write better. He’s set a standard I can’t even dream of achieving, but it’s best to aim high. For as Mr. Browning says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Make of it what you will…


Another novel lost to the sea?

Another novel lost to the sea?

Welcome to my scribblings in the virtual sand. Funny thing about writing in sand, it doesn’t last long. Neither does most of the scribbling anyone does on paper or in electrons. Except for a miniscule percentage of past writing — Homer, Moses, Confucius, Euripides, and Josephus have had a pretty good run — it gets washed out with the tides of time. Books tend to migrate to the back shelves, then to library sales, and finally become compost.

The fate of these words will be the same. I confess to fantasizing that, after some kind of environmental or military apocalypse, all writings of the current age will have been destroyed. Some archaeologist will stumble on something I wrote and judge our entire culture on those findings. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

All told, this is my fifth blog of one sort or another. You might think that’s somewhat self-indulgent, and you might be right. But I like writing, so there you are.

Of the other blogs, one I’ve passed on to others, one to which I regularly contributed has gone on hiatus, and one is quiescent. This nascent series and one other, Limping in the Light, are alive and, well, well.

If you are so inclined, please feel free to click on the little plus sign at the bottom right (you know, the one that says, “Follow”) to be notified of my mostly weekly posts.

God bless you…