“‘At the bottom of every process of obtaining creative material for our work is emotion.’” (Stanislavsky, Chap. V, pg. 101; emphasis added)
Last week, I had the honor of being a guest on Jovelyn’s Bistro on KPFA’s radio show Cover to Cover Open Book. One of the questions that came up was why psychological fiction isn’t a better-known genre. One idea about this is that psychological fiction delves into the emotional world of characters and the “messy” parts of being human and this makes it a challenge many readers prefer not to take on. This is understandable with so much fiction focused on entertainment and escapism. I wrote about the different goals of fiction and entertainment and escape is high on the list because it is what many readers demand.
Unfortunately, when it comes to characters’ emotional worlds, what readily comes to mind is not psychological fiction but reality TV shows. The hyper-drama that dominates most reality TV might be entertaining to watch and, at some level, validating, but when we examine it closely, it is emotional trauma on a shallow level. In some ways, reality TV makes it OK for us to express emotion but not really deal with them on a deeper level.
Anais Nin had a name for this. She called it resistentialism. According to Nin’s The Novel of the Future, resistentialism “consists of those who are afraid of going inside, who have a fear of intimacy or contact with human beings”(Chap 7, location 3050-3060). Nin was concerned that writers and other artists would take this fear into their work, keeping them and their readers from delving too deep into the most painful aspects of human nature.
Resistentialism was also the concern of Constantin Stanislavsky, one of the founding fathers of method acting. In his book An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky insists “‘delicate and deep human feelings … call for natural emotions at the very moment in which they appear before you in the flesh’” (Chap. II, pg. 24; emphasis original). In the context of acting, he felt that when actors began at the end, that is, targeting certain emotions the audience should feel, they risked falling into more mechanical ways of portraying those emotions that are not authentic or organic to the nature of the character. He advised actors to “‘first gather all the materials that have any bearing on [the role you’re playing], and supplement them with more and more imagination, until you have achieved such a similarity to life that it is easy to believe in what you are doing’” (Stanislavsky, Chap. III, pg. 58). I believe this is excellent advice for writers too. To go deep into the emotional life of a character, it is necessary to know the character and let imagination shape who the character is as we write. This is why I have never found character dossiers to be of much use because even the character’s external world grows organically from his or her internal world. Assigning a certain eye color or religion or clothes style to a character before I get to really know him or her might give me a starting point but eventually it becomes artificial. In one of my current projects, House of Masks, I had only a vague notion of who one of the characters, Radella, was and what role she played in the book. I found as I started to write that one of her quirks was wearing clothes with real bird feathers. The idea of freedom and flight is a reoccurring themes in my fiction, but for Radella, she is seen as a flighty older woman but Nancy, the main character, comes to see her world experience make her more observant than Bree, Nancy’s neighbor with whom she lives. If I had made a character dossier and stuck to it, I wouldn’t have discovered this fashion quirk.
It’s understandable why writers and readers have resistentialism. I went through this myself with the story of The Claustrophobic Heart, the second book of my Waxwood series. I’ve explained in a past blog post how the series came out of a novel I had written more than twelve years ago in three separate narratives. The original book contained only a few scenes showing Gena’s relationship with her aunt Helen, not typical of me as a writer, since family relationships are at the core of most of my fiction. It took me years to figure out why. Their relationship went beyond Helen’s invalidism and neediness. There were deeper emotions, some of them taboo. I wrote the scenes almost “in passing,” as Gena’s narrative focused more on how she insinuated herself into the Alderdice family, taking what little love Larissa had for her children, for her own gain. In other words, the focus of her story was external rather than internal.
When I recreated the story between Gena and Helen, I knew that Gena’s psychological reality was closely linked to her past and present relationship with her aunt. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t go deeply into that relationship. In the novella, that present and past between Gena and her aunt become the focus.
I don’t think resistentialism is always bad or surprising in our modern world dominated by media and the internet. It’s nature that people “feel … proximity [of emotions] will cloud their insight or involve their feelings.” (Nin, Chap. 7, location 3060) and so they prefer reading books that do not force them to do this.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Aristophanes Press, 2015 (original publication date 1936). Kindle digital file.