Corner Post: “Questions of Risk”

Main characters need a stake in their story.  The answer rarely comes in the first drafts for me, but at some point, I halfway figure out what my protagonist wants.  I say halfway because the more I revise, the more the stakes change, multiply.  What she wanted on page 1 becomes something else on page 12.  It is never good, I have found, to pin a character to a set plot or theme.  To do so makes her a servant of the plot, which tends to flatten her out.  Instead, I let the protagonist lead. 

It takes a while to get there—draft after draft of asking my main character what pieces of her life she would risk losing to get what she wants?  And in what order would she risk losing them?  What situation would cause her to abandon what she wants?  These are questions about tipping points.  Questions that remove distance between character and writer.  The answers show up in conversations with other characters and in her thoughts and actions until eventually I am no longer writing from my perspective.  I’ve given over control, trusting her to lead me to the places the story needs to go.  Just as she trusts I’ll tell her story the way she wants it.  That pact between us is essential.  Without it, my stories fail.  But to make that pact work requires risk.

To be able to find risk on the page, we have to know risk in our own lives.  I’m not talking about manufacturing risk, creating dramatic situations.  I’m talking about simply being a part of the physical world around us made up of people, roads, old warehouses, trees.  And engaging the world in ways that feed us creatively instead of isolating ourselves.  That, too, is a type of risk.

Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”  I just don’t know if that’s true anymore.  At least not for those who have survived video games and a childhood manufactured out of never ending soccer leagues.  I understand the rationale for sports—I played basketball in high school and learned a great deal from it about teamwork and persistence—but keeping our kids constantly preoccupied doesn’t protect them from getting into trouble, from getting hurt.  It protects them from other ways of living, from having time to just be so they can figure the world out for themselves. 

So much of our lives as adults and children are spent on one side of a glass screen such as televisions and computers.  On the other side, a flat world pretending to be real.  Too much time spent there flattens out the imagination, feeding us only a visual depiction and many conversations we cannot speak back to, cannot be a part of.  What gives stories power is their ability to engage people’s imaginations fully by evoking all the senses, their ability to create a give and take between reader and writer where words vanish into image, into scene, into something actually experienced, not just observed.  For that to happen, words have to reside outside the glass screen.  And so do we if we hope to create those words.

Let’s face it, we already spend long stretches of time just sitting down to write.  So when our brains can’t put words together any longer, it’s important to spend time in the world we’re writing about, not a representation of that world.  Sports, many of them, have limits, too, because they exist within the boundaries of a court or a field, within the boundaries of set rules.  I tell my students that after they graduate, live a life outside the classroom.  Because if the lens through which they see and know the world is predominantly through one lens, the lens of school, then it doesn’t give them varied ways of being.  As writers we need varied experiences.  Experiences that give us different perspectives to write from.  The world of people, roads, mountains, sidewalks, rivers, music, other arts, old warehouses, trees.  We have to engage that world.  Then when we ask our main characters questions of risk, they will have more answers to give.

James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.