lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

Populating Fiction in the Age of Social Isolation: A Lesson with Aram Mrjoian

At the beginning of Brandon Taylor’s terrific campus novel, Real Life, the protagonist, Wallace, stands alone, staring off a platform on a bustling college lakefront, looking for his group of four white friends somewhere in the crowd below. Wallace, a black, queer biochemist from the rural South, is the first black person in his midwestern university’s graduate program in more than three decades. Wallace is not entirely convinced it was a good idea to join his friends, but by the time he considers changing course they’ve spotted him and he is trapped under the net of social niceties.

The rest of Taylor’s novel takes course over the following weekend. Moving forward, Wallace can never fully escape these crowded social situations. He is trapped at the crowded bar, the cramped grad student dinner party, nearly always surrounded by people. Taylor’s decision to introduce Wallace in isolation makes it easy to see that his protagonist feels distant, uncomfortable, vulnerable, and threatened in the white and wealthy confines of academia. For Wallace, there is seemingly no way out, and the frequent racist, problematic encounters he experiences with friends and coworkers throughout the remainder of the narrative increase tension, deepen character development, and send the plot in unexpected directions. The first few pages introduce Wallace in a solo moment of introspective anxiety and fear, but the rest of the novel is expertly populated with characters that further reveal and complicate the acuteness of those emotions.

It’s strange to be writing about populating fiction during a time when we should all be as isolated as possible. Virtual socialization aside, right now most of us are spending all of our hours holed up with loved ones or alone. I would say I wonder if this will make future fiction sparser and more barren, but as an editor I already know how common it is for writers to hinge stories on one or two central characters in isolation. At TriQuarterly and the Southeast Review, one of the most common issues I see is stories that feel lacking in characters or character development. In some cases, these stories can feel more like an extended scene between two or three people rather than a full narrative. There are the isolated break-ups, rambling car trips, somber hospital visits, terse dinner table conversations, etc., where there is nary a person who isn’t essential to driving the plot forward.

The consequence is that I end up passing on many promising stories that read too thin. The under-populated story can quickly come to read like the writer is talking to themself, using every character as a convenient narrative device, or progressing the plot in an underdeveloped, predictable direction. For example: two lovers wake up in bed, they squabble, one leaves, end. A protagonist comes home, finds lone parent changed, adapts or does not adapt to change, end.

These, of course, are oversimplified equations, and there are uncountable instances of their successes. If we dig, we can find gold standard examples of every plot, but if I had to take an editorial guess at the most common reasons under-populated stories often struggle to feel complete it would be that the low occupancy makes it easy for characters to fall flat, for the writer to rely too heavily on exposition, or for the narrative arc to never fully form. So much of how we learn about characters is in the daily ways they engage with the outside world; those routines often require interaction with more than one or two other people.

I hope it goes without saying that neither does every work of fiction fall into this model nor do all stories require more characters. There’s no fix-all approach or golden formula. The following prompts mostly apply to short fiction and are intended to be loose and open-ended. Don’t think of them as comprehensive templates, but rather as jumping off points for when you’re stuck in a scene or can’t find a way of opening up your plot to more characters.

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Prompt: Place your central character into an immediate situation of forced socialization, not a voluntary night out at the bar or average day at the office, but something less common, an event, an occasion. Ideally, this situation will force your protagonist to engage with characters they’ve never met, characters they might dislike, and characters who make their current situation more difficult.

Example: A stellar display of this move is Danielle Evans’s short story, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” which was first published in American Short Fiction and anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2017. Another is the opening scene in ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.”

Prompt: Send your protagonist on a wild goose chase, an adventure with or without resolution, the ole person on a journey routine. The key is to make sure your protagonist 1) has a clear goal or motivation and 2) a need to move through space, a changing setting, which will require them to stumble upon multiple people. Who is your protagonist forced to interact and engage with? How do they navigate heavily populated and less populated spaces? Are there local, social, or personal consequences to their journey?

Example: One of my favorite short stories of all time is “Finding Billy White Feather” by Percival Everett. Even in a rural setting, the constant movement of Everett’s protagonist, Oliver Campbell,  creates a remarkable sense of the community and locale. In other words, Oliver’s quest inherently builds and expands the world he occupies, all the while propelling the narrative forward and further developing Oliver’s character.

Prompt: We all know the usual suspects for populous settings in fiction: bars, house parties, dinner parties, weddings, funerals. These situations are to be expected given their quotidian nature. Try complicating a typical social scene with an unexpected game, activity, or happening, something unpredictable, an uncommon occurrence for the circumstances.

Example: Denis Johnson does this tremendously well in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” In the first paragraph, as a dinner party dies down, Johnson writes, “We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard.” By the paragraph’s end, Johnson has masterfully delivered defining moments in the lives of all the present characters. Or, during a different scene later in the story, consider, “At one point we were standing in the light of the flames, I and Miller Thomas, seeing how many books each man could balance on his out-flung arms, Elaine and Francesca loading them onto our hands in a test of equilibrium that both of us failed repeatedly. It became a test of strength. I don’t know who won.”

Prompt: If you have two central characters stuck in extended dialogue, who is the worst possible person to enter the scene? In other words, bring in the ultimate foil. How does introducing this third person amp up the tension? What can this third person do to make the situation better or worse? Where did they come from and why are they there? Hat tip to Juan Martinez, who first gave me this prompt in his radical revision workshop (and I believe it might have been previously passed to him as well).

Example: In “Shiloh,” by Bobbie Ann Mason, the relationship between the main duo of Leroy and Norma Jean is pressed by constant visitations from Leroy’s mother-in-law, Mabel. With subtlety, Mabel manages to push Leroy and Norma Jean’s relationship to the brink. Admittedly, this is a sparsely populated story, but one where the introduction of a critical third character makes all the difference.

Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD student at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and Southern Review of Books, the assistant editor at the Southeast Review, and the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Millions, The Rumpus, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

Artwork by: Markus Spiske