I’m reading a new mystery novel and there’s a problem. I can’t help but think the author is holding back, like a sprinter on the starting block, but not quite ready to run all out. The novel’s characters are too nice to each other, preferring to forgive than hold a grudge, pulling back from saying what they really think, doing the proper thing instead of breaking the rules. The book reads like journalistic non-fiction, rather than fiction.
I’ve always thought fiction is about what we really want to say, think, and do, not what we ought to say, think, and do. It’s about desire, not propriety; characters may behave as if propriety is important, but in their heart of hearts, they dream of tasting the forbidden fruit. It’s the writer’s job to show the characters doing those things, to lay bare all the emotions–hate, love, fear, jealousy, lust–and demonstrate what these look like in an imagined world.
The best writers expose themselves as they explore what people want most but dare not try in real life. It’s incredibly difficult to allow yourself such honesty, because you sometimes don’t like what you see. The masters make the process look easy. Ernest Hemingway put it best: “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
There’s an image from science fiction that puts a different spin on this idea. In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the 1970 sequel to the classic Planet of the Apes, mutant humans rule underground, while apes rule the surface of Earth. In a scene which frightened me when I first saw it as a teenager, the humans worship a doomsday weapon, and in the course of the ritual, “reveal their inmost self” by peeling the epidermis off their heads. They show themselves as they really are to their “god.” (Watch the video below to see what I mean.)
Fearless writers rip off their skins, symbolically, as they reach into their subconscious and share narratives that have the veneer of reality, but are actually fantasies, dreams, or nightmares. The author of the mystery novel has yet to learn (not that I’m an expert) that finding the truth means jettisoning the restraints and illusions of the real world.