Subtext in Character Attention and Inattention
by Bonnie Grove
by Bonnie Grove
People are misunderstood. Each of us longs to be understood and valued for who we are. Yet, each of us can point to episodes in our lives when we are confronted with the fact that we have been (and are) utterly misunderstood. Assumptions have been made about us, and circulated as truths. How could this have happened? Haven’t our words and actions made clear our hearts and minds?
This is the basic dilemma of the writer when creating characters who live out a story. The writer must push past her idea of who the character is, and instead embrace the fullness of what is about the character. Characters, to be realistic, must be understood by the writer as complex, real people. This means of course that the writer must first be able to accomplish this in her own life. To practice understanding those around her as complete other, and not merely the idea of a person, or a collection of assumed perceptions about a person. Then it is the task of the writer to demonstrate this fullness of character within the confines of roughly 75,000 words. Here, once again, we find subtext to be our great ally. Because it is impossible to cram fully formed humans into novels, the writer must rely on subtext to tell the deeper story of our character’s humanity, while keeping the story as the goal. One way to accomplish this is to apply subtext to the way our characters pay attention, or pay a lack of attention to other characters, objects, settings, or other important elements within a story.
Robert, a married man, professes endless love for his mistress while he sends her young son to his room to play alone.
Barbara, who has recently been dumped by the man she loves, catalogs his faults to a friend. When the friend offers words of support, Barbara begins listing her ex-lover’s faults all over again.
A teenage girl pursues a relationship with a boy who is, in fact, a vampire.
A newly married couple has a fierce argument over the proper method for cooking rice.
What these characters are paying attention to is only part of the story. It is what they are ignoring—and are not even aware they are ignoring, is the depth of their character reveled. In The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Charles Baxter notes, “If people aren’t paying attention to other people or even to themselves, well then, we need to pay attention to that.”
When writing fiction, the task of the author is to be the one paying attention to what the characters are ignoring, in order to bring rich understanding into the fullness of the characters humanity.
Talking to the Dead: A Novel by Bonnie Grove
Twenty-something Kate Davis can’t seem to get this grieving widow thing right. She’s supposed to put on a brave face and get on with her life, right? Instead she’s camped out on her living room floor, unwashed, unkempt, and unable to sleep—because her husband Kevin keeps talking to her.
Is she losing her mind?
Kate’s attempts to find the source of the voice she hears are both humorous and humiliating, as she turns first to an “eclectically spiritual” counselor, then a shrink with a bad toupee, an exorcist, and finally group therapy. There she meets Jack, the warmhearted, unconventional pastor of a ramshackle church, and at last the voice subsides. But when she stumbles upon a secret Kevin was keeping, Kate’s fragile hold on the present threatens to implode under the weight of the past…and Kevin begins to shout.
Will the voice ever stop? Kate must confront her grief to find the grace to go on, in this tender, quirky first novel about embracing life.
Bonnie Grove started writing when her parents bought a typewriter, and she hasn’t stopped since. Trained in counseling, theology and psychology, she developed and wrote strength-based social programs for families at risk while landing articles and stories in anthologies. She is the award winning, and internationally published author of Talking to the Dead: a Novel. She and husband, Steve, have two young children and one small dog. They make their home in Saskatchewan.