Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview with Clint Johnson

I interviewed the fabulous author of the book, "Green Dragon Codex" a few months ago for a blog I participate in, "The Enchanted Inkpot." However, due to space constraints I was not able to post it in its entirety. I happened to come across the full interview when I was finally cleaning out my desktop, so here it is.

You speak about conflict and the story mechanism. Can you briefly explain what that means to you?

Narrative is universal. It crosses culture, geography, and time, which means that it must fulfill some inherent human need that isn’t satisfied through any other mechanism. Stories do something for us—but to achieve that, they have to function. A meaningful story, whether romantic, exciting, tragic, comical, or whatever, must be more than a collection of isolated concepts (characters, setting, plot, etc). These things must work in conjunction to become greater than the sum of their parts, and the fact is that there is a set system in which these parts function. It’s like building an engine—to get the best result you have to follow the blueprint. If you build your story according to this established rhetorical system, you get a good story; if you construct your story’s engine haphazardly or without regard to effect, you get a ream of paper thick with irrelevant words.

So do you believe an author should approach a story with a more systematic approach?

I think all art is creative, expressive, and the result of inspiration; I also believe it is rhetorical and the fruit of plain hard work. It isn’t one or the other. We as writers have a choice: we can be dependent upon our personal Muse, writing via a mystical instinctive process over which we have very little control, or we can try our best to master our creative processes to exert greater influence over our craft, passion, and profession—written story. Organic writers, those who simply “write what comes,” are constrained by natural talent; they’re prisoners of their gifted or not-so-gifted natures. I was afraid I might be in the not-so-gifted category. When I figured out how bad my first book was, I rejected the notion that my writing career would be utterly determined by whatever native talent I possess. I decided to do everything in my power to develop my craftsmanship and skill, because those things I could to some degree control through diligence and hard work. Eventually that led to the realization that story is just as rhetorical as language, and that through education and practice we can improve our skill at both.

What are the main elements of this system?

The main elements of the system are commonly known if not always well understood: conflict (need + opposition + action until resolution) which increases as the story unfolds; rich, specific, and efficient setting and plot made relevant through a strong and unique perspective or point of view (the importance of this is so often overlooked); and emotion, emotion, emotion. The system is so intricate we can never master it, but its basic framework is so simple anyone can learn to craft it if they work at it.

What does conflict achieve in a story?

Conflict is the fuel that makes a well-constructed story run. It is the catalyst that makes story relevant. There is a specific mechanism behind this: conflict forces character action; action reveals deep character; revealed character facilitates the suspension of disbelief; as disbelief decreases, identification rises; identification with characters invests us in stories and allows for vicarious experience on an emotional (relevant) level; we tell stories to communicate and understand our emotions. The very purpose for the existence of story ceases to be without conflict.

This has been known for a long time. Aristotle identified what he called the six dramatic plots: Man vs. Self; Man vs. Man; Man vs. Society; Man vs. Machine; Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Supernatural/God. People debate if some of these are different aspects of the same thing or if there are more plots, but it’s quite a silly debate, really. Note anything common to all of them? Man vs. whatever. That’s story. Put a character in a situation where he or she needs something, something of equal power keeps them from getting it, and the two sides battle to some resolution, and you’ve got a story. If you want your narrative to be relevant to a reader, you can’t escape conflict. When Kurt Vonnegutt taught writing one principle of his instruction was to make your character want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Conflict is that essential. The narrative machine simply doesn’t work without it.

How does conflict help the reader to connect emotionally with a character?

Characters, if they’re written well, aren’t very different from people. They have routines. They are self-aware and have a good deal of regard for their own comfort and happiness, and will have structured their lives so as not to rock the boat. But how much do we learn about a person by observing their routine? Simply, we don’t.

It’s a long-accepted psychological truth that we all wear masks, and we change our masks according to situation. We pretend to be other than we are to get along without creating friction with others. Very few people get to see us without our psychological masks. To allow people to know who we really are is to risk intimacy, which is dangerous because it bares our hidden emotions, allows us to be deeply hurt and to hurt others in turn, and fosters dependence on other people. The reader of a story needs to see herself in the characters, so intimacy is vital. Conflict is the tool the storyteller uses to rock the boat. It’s how we break characters from the comfortable routine they’ve set; it strips away their masks and shows what’s underneath, all the complex, raw, genuine feelings and motivations that are the substance of our humanity.

So do you believe that breaking down our characters’ masks requires some emotional honesty on the author’s part as well?

Ah, that seems an innocent question, but it has such an important and frightening answer: yes. Let’s be completely honest here, none of us humans is really all that bright. There is infinitely more that we don’t understand than what we do. All our potent science gives us is good cause to believe something; certainty is beyond our grasp. Thus life is one long opportunity and struggle to figure things out better than our current understanding, and our great fixation is ourselves. Everything we do has an element of species-understanding motivating it. We want to know what we are and why we are that way, ultimately because each of us wants to answer that great double faceted question, “Who am I and what is my importance?” We largely look to others to answer that question, primarily through the language of narrative. That’s how we share those inner things that define what it means to be human—not only what things are but what they mean. To do that, to honestly raise your voice in this great conversation, you have to write from truth as you understand it. That means always writing from yourself: your hopes and dreams and fears, your insights and perplexities, your emotive slant on reality. That genuine expression of self, when it finds resonance with another person, is the validation and interconnectivity that we all need to better know and be happy with who we are.

The scary side of this is that our masks are also our shields, and when we take them down we can be hurt. We often observe that artistic personalities are often addictive or otherwise self-damaging as well, and try to understand this frightening correlation. Some believe that you can’t be a great artist without being in some way significantly broken as a human being. Jack London used to say that he considered his writing and his drinking to be the same, two expressions of his fixed character, and believed he couldn’t possibly stop the one without ending the other. I don’t believe this. I don’t accept that artistic sensibilities are the result of a self-destructive nature. I do believe that art is always expression of human longings, confusions, terrors, frustrations, and innumerable other powerful emotions attached to things that we don’t feel we completely understand. To explore these things, to seek to understand and even communicate them to others, means that we can’t ignore or dismiss them. The artist can turn away from the difficult truths and frightening questions like most others do, but chooses not to. But braving these turbulent emotional waters takes a toll. If you want to understand pain, or heartbreak, or rage, or despair, and to communicate that to someone else, you have to go into that shadowy corner yourself. It can be traumatic. Some of us deal with this trauma by destroying ourselves, seeking escape through drugs or other forms of self-mutilating behavior. Others, however, cope by making connections with others, by using our expression—in my case, my writing—to find our reflection in other people. I’m not so frightened of those dark corners when people read my stories, look me in the eye, and say, “I’ve been there too.” We can face truths, horrible as well as beautiful, as long as we don’t have to do so alone.

How does conflict reveal character?

You can watch a young mother at her daughter’s soccer game year after year and never truly know her. Send an out of control car onto the field, and we learn who she is: Does she look around at others, seeking verification that what she’s seeing is real? Does she cover her eyes and start to quote scripture? Does she run out onto the field and pull her child free from harm? Does she run onto the field and pull the coach, a secret lover, from the field, and leave her child alone? Characters besieged by dramatic conflict can’t hide themselves.

You have talked about dramatic conflict stemming from the author discovering what the protagonist needs emotionally. Can you explain that?

When asked how to write a good short story, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know….” The same is true of any story, accepting more or less emotional frustration and evolution given length. For us to identify with and thus share the emotions of characters, they have to show us who they truly are. They never want to do that, no more than we do. It’s scary and risky and we’re encultured our entire lives not to do it. Can you imagine a society where everyone acted in perfect accord with their feelings? It would be anarchy. All civilized and social beings know this, and this includes our characters. So we as storytellers need a mechanism to propel our characters from the unrevealing comfort of the normal to the revealing dramatic—Joseph Campbell would call it from the natural to the supernatural world. We do this with conflict, and conflict begins with a powerful need. Our protagonist has to need something so desperately it motivates her to act out of character, which when done in an authentic way isn’t out of character at all—it is revealing, not just of character, but of character evolving.

But can’t a character need something that isn’t emotional?

What about Vonnegutt’s glass of water? The simple fact is that all needs are emotional; all wants, even the most transitory—pleasure—are emotional as well. That which invokes in a person no emotion is irrelevant, truly without meaning. So whatever a character needs, be it a physical item like a gun or a situation of events such as winning the championship game, this need arises from the emotions undergirding the item or event. If you aren’t aware of the emotion beneath the surface, you don’t know your character. Does she want the gun to save her own life (emotion: fear of death and the unknown), to save the life of another person (emotion: love and interdependence), or to attain revenge? Does your teen want to win that game to prove to his teammates that he isn’t a loser (emotion: pride and shame and self-doubt), or to atone for last year’s loss (humiliation), or to win the girl of his dreams (love, infatuation, and validated pride). The fact is it doesn’t ultimately matter what your character wants, no matter how grand, if you don’t know—and the reader can’t tell—the emotional why behind that desire.

How can the author use conflict to force that protagonist into reaching for his needs?

Develop that need, both on the emotional as well as external level, to the point where it motivates the character to break routine and evolve as a person, either for better or worse. Then confront the character with an oppositional force of equal or greater strength that is just as determined to keep the character from getting what he needs. Then have both sides do everything in their power to get their way. It’s really that simple. Need + Opposition + Action until resolution = story.

Can you give an example of this?

I could give you a million, but let’s take the experience of an abused wife. She’s been married for fourteen years, has three children, and has been abused every year of her marriage. She sometimes considers divorce but always decides against it. There is a lot of bad stuff happening here, a lot of tension, but it isn’t dramatic conflict. She’s still in her routine: get abused, dream of freeing herself from the situation, decide against it because of concern for her kids (love) and an unrealized fear of the uncertain life that would await her following divorce. Her need is security, for herself and, more importantly, for her children. Her routine perceives the certainty of abuse she’s well acquainted with as being preferable to the uncertainty of divorce. Then one day she goes to tuck in her ten-year-old son and sees he has a black eye. The moment she sees that her routine is shattered; her need, safety for her kids, is no longer being met in her mind. It doesn’t even matter that he tells her it happened playing football; from her perspective, her husband has hurt her child. From that moment on she doesn’t care how scary the uncertainty is or what negatives divorce may have on the kids—it’s better than their living the life she has, full of fear, and doubt, and questions of self-worth. The story becomes how she goes about getting the divorce, both externally as well as emotionally. It all stems from that need for safety being thwarted via the appearance of an innocent black eye.

Let’s talk about your book, for a moment, Green Dragon Codex. In the book, young Scamp makes a discovery that changes the course of his life. What do you see as his emotional needs?

Primarily acceptance and esteem, from others as well as himself. Scamp is that child who is far from a perfect fit—in his family, his village, his world. (Which is true of every child, and every adult, truth be told.) He sees things differently from others and is aware of this, and that awareness creates in him a duality of independence and deep craving for acceptance. He can’t do so many things, including meet standard expectations of the heroic, unlike Mather who is something of a poster boy for the traditional hero celebrated by society. But there are many things Scamp can do, only he is so little valued for the things he brings to the table. This story is about how a boy who is more strange than stereotypically heroic has to become a hero by being true to who he is in spite of little encouragement from others. All the things about him that drive people crazy—his need to touch and explore things, his fanatical curiosity, his just plain weird problem solving—are what save the day. I wanted a story that required a boy who is willing and able to run around in his underwear and drop cows on dragons to get the job done, because we need these people in real life. We have enough problems in life that people with new and unusual ideas can be one of our greatest resources, if we have the imagination to embrace them.

You have talked about being willing as an author to consider what would happen if we “push our characters to the edge.” That may not actually make it into the story, but considering this possibility opens up new discoveries about the characters. What would be the thing that would push Scamp to the edge?

Things in the story include learning of Mather’s traumatic experience, dealing with a death, and having to part with Pug at the end of the story. As much as Mather frustrates Scamp, there is a lot of hero-worship going on there as well. Learning how hurt and uncertain Mather is makes Scamp change his entire view of life and how he is going to measure himself. Peda’s death and Pug’s departure force the boy to realize that adulthood is coming eventually, and the innocent and sweet things of childhood aren’t always sustainable. That’s one terrifying edge that we all must cross in our lives.

Things that were in the novel to some degree but not to the extent I considered in my construction of the story were Scamp’s crisis of faith in benevolent providence and Dannika’s death. While she lives in the book, I considered his reaction if she had died, and it taught me a lot about this boy. All these things forced Scamp to change, and seeing who he could become given circumstance helped me to better know both who he is and who he actually would become in the story.

A primary conflict for Scamp throughout the story is in the developing relationship with his older brother, Mather, who is much stronger physically and seen as being far more capable. The fact that both of these boys struggle in their relationship has a very humanizing effect on them for the reader. How do you think this struggle reveals Scamp’s character?

I hope it shows his dual nature. Scamp is both frustrated with and in awe of his brother. He sees the older boy as the impossible standard he is expected to meet but never will. Mather’s own behavior only reinforces this perception, when in reality the older boy’s sternness and demanding nature hide his own powerful self-doubt. In a way, Mather is just as intimidated by Scamp as Scamp is of him. Scamp lives his life going full out, trying everything, striving hard at things he cares about and not letting others dictate what those things will be. Mather is too terrified to invest himself that way, to ever go full out and put himself on the line because he’s afraid of failing. They’re dim reflections of each other, which I think is an interesting and accurate way to display what brothers truly are.

Mather was also very important as he serves the parental role in the story. Much of the dynamic between Scamp and Mather is alluding to the relationship children have with their parents, and the conflicts they experience come from that type of relationship. When Scamp learns of Mather’s internal vulnerability it is very much the moment he realizes that caregivers aren’t perfect, not simply by choice, but because of lack of capability. This combines with other aspects of the story to force Scamp to face his own limitations—and his own strengths, which can be just as difficult when something of great importance is really on the line. Without this brother relationship in the novel, the story doesn’t exist. Scamp’s character, from beginning to end, is largely a product of his relationship with his brother. This is something I want to come through all my stories, because none of us are islands. To understand ourselves we need to understand as much about those around us as possible, the more people and greater variety the better.

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