One of our jobs as writers is to keep our characters jumping through hoops, keep tossing the pain and suffering. Because, as they say, if you’re not torturing your characters, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.
When we think of torturing our characters though, we often think of big events: a battle, an epic loss, some large change. These instances serve as major plot points, evidence of our characters altering their perspective, their code of ethics or some other large part of who they are. But, in reality, life is not typically made up of large or epic moments. Instead, our lives are made up of small moments, small instances of change or conflict.
And, it is precisely this that has caught my interest this week. If the cycle of life imitating art (or vice versa) has any merit, one would think that the general population has more in common with characters who are facing smaller or more everyday adversities and changes. Realistically, readers engage in a book because it is so different from their lives. But, I think small moments can be just as engaging as epic battles.
The idea of large versus small points of contention does generally tend to depend on the genre. You don’t have a lot of cases of small moments in epic fantasy like you do in literary fiction. But, in literary fiction, while primarily character driven, can have both large or small moments.
One of my favorite examples of a book characterized by small moments of interaction is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. The entire story–which covers many decades–takes place within the walls of this grand hotel. Writing something like this within such a small setting is incredibly daunting. But the author does a fantastic job and readers just keep turning the pages. You learn about the gentleman through his interactions and how he builds a life for himself in spite of the sentence that keeps him barred from the outside world. Towles’ ability to create intrigue within a pleasant conversation is unparalleled. I have lots to learn from this writer.
But it’s not only this book that has me thinking about small moments in writing. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but incidents in my own life have me thinking about how character would handle everyday blips or small changes in their own lives. For example, as my boyfriend and I are packing up and paring down our possessions to move in together, we’ve been picking out things of our own that we want to sell so that we fit into our new space and aren’t moving things that are unnecessary. For me, this included an extra set of pots and pans that I never use. Even though I don’t use them anymore, these pots and pans were the first cooking items I bought for myself when I got my first apartment. Somehow, I’m emotionally tied to them, though I never realized it.
More recently, I’ve been using a set of pots and pans that my mom got for my grandfather, though he never opened them and refused to use them. And even though he never used them, I still associate them with my grandfather and love having them and using them every day. But, selling that first set of pans made me feel a little sad. Even though they’ve done nothing but sit on a shelf collecting dust for the past year, seeing them taken away by someone else affected me. This is a lesson in how we grow attached to things without realizing it. And our characters, if they are human, likely face the same issues. How would a character in a story feel about losing an everyday item that they were emotionally tied to?
As a writer, I think: What does this mean? What does it say about me? What would it say about a character if my life was a story and this surprising small moment of something that wasn’t quite sadness, but something like that occurred?
Change is funny, I suppose. It’s one of those things that we both relish and reject at the same time. It doesn’t always have to be large moments that signal change either. I’m reminded of the scene in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when she removes her wedding ring and begins to see herself as a divorced woman. That simple action becomes synonymous with a huge shift in how Midge sees herself and how the rest of the world views her: from Mrs. to Ms.
Continuing with my rough draft of NightWind, I plan to keep the idea of small moments and everyday things in mind to see how they can enhance the story that I’m telling. How do small incidents play a role in your own writing? Have you ever stopped to consider how your character might react to something as mundane as selling a possession to someone? Please share in the comments!