The 19th century German playwright Friedrich Hebbel wrote:
"In a good play, everyone is right."
This is as true of novels as it is of plays. But what does he mean by 'right' and why is this a good thing for a narrative?
Let's explore this by way of an example. You have an idea for a novel: a conductor has discovered that his best friend, a cellist, is about to go on a world-wide series of concerts and will be playing the music of a notorious Nazi who personally served Hitler. The conductor is outraged and is determined to stop this even if it ends the friendship between them. The cellist is equally determined not to be stopped. The conductor's wife is apparently as appalled as he is over their friend's decision, but at the last minute she frustrates her husband's plans to prevent the tour, at the cost of her marriage.
A meaty subject with lots of conflict arising from different motives: just what you want in a story. But let's apply Hebbel's statement to see if we can create not just a story, but a good novel, one with depth and resonance.
Of the three characters, you know we'll like the conductor: his motivation is clear, and we'll share his contempt for anyone who is willing to excuse Nazism. He is fighting the good fight.
An ordinary novel is content merely to make you like one or more of the characters. So you could stop right there. The conductor is the hero. But a superior novel wants to make us, the readers, understand them, to be caught up in their struggles, because our sympathies are deeply engaged with them. That means looking not just at the hero, but at everyone.
Everyone is right in a good novel. But the cellist: how can you make us, your readers, passionately on his side? How can we care about someone who seems happy to play a notorious Nazi's music?
Everyone is right in a good novel. How can we agree with the wife, who betrays her husband's trust in support of a man who is promoting the work of a Nazi?
It's your job to do just that. As the writer, you are the one who must first agree with your characters, you are the one who must convince us they are right. After all, you have chosen to tell this story to us. Why?
One of the obvious reasons to write such a novel is to explore the relationship of art and life. Can a villain create great art? Does it need a sublime soul to make a masterpiece, or can a lying, sneaking, racist scoundrel also achieve sublimity? What, indeed, is creativity? Does it spring from the totality of our personalities, or is it some mysterious, almost outside, force that can grow in the murkiest soil?
That's a premise worthy of this novel, a serious question to explore, and superior novels are superior because they address the serious things in life. Superior novels live within you forever, because they address deep issues that shape our behaviour and our fundamental purpose in life.
There are two ways to explore the questions you set yourself: by setting up cardboard characters who are mouthpieces to speak each side of the debate, or by creating real human beings who really believe in what they are saying and doing. Which would you rather read? Yes, so let's see how to write it.
The cellist. Think of him playing Bach and Mozart and Bartok each day, feel how he compares himself to these geniuses and knows how far short he falls. He feels unworthy to play this great music. You see his innate humility, his despair that life is failure. That doesn't mean that he doesn't also feel ambition and the lust for fame. Humans are complex creatures. But at the core, he is right. Great art seems to spring from any source it chooses, and the source is immaterial. He himself is a mere human being, unworthy, just Mozart was a mere human, just as the Nazi composer was a mere human. Can any one of us explain where genius comes from or what it is? Can we do anything else but accept it as a miracle in our bleak existences, whatever its origin, and rejoice?
By imagining the wellspring of the cellist's motivation as humility and despair, you have created a character who seemed to be the bad guy, but who in fact is right. How can he then allow himself to be stopped by the conductor? He can't. Their conflict has tragedy and depth because your reader will feel deeply that both are right, yet one must lose. Their conflict also has drama, and that makes a good novel.
What about the conductor's wife? She agrees with her husband, but frustrates his plans. What motivates her to do this? You think about her, go into her head. You 'learn' about her as you create her. She believes that great art excuses, is even the forgiveness for, evil. Gauguin abandoned his wife and children to paint, but we balance his bad behaviour against his paintings and decide we can live with the bad behaviour, because we don't want to give up the paintings. The wife believes in the transcendental, forgiving power of art.
How could you not agree? Here is a second character who is right, yet who is opposed both to her husband and to the cellist: to one because he puts art second to the artist and the other because he appears, in her eyes, to be acting on his lust for fame by playing the music of a notorious Nazi. Misunderstanding, misinterpretation, create conflict and yield more drama. Throw in a twist: the cellist is in love with the wife, and the wife loves her husband. Here is a serious premise entangled with high emotion, and the reader will want to see how love makes the wife and the cellist do what they do, perhaps in spite of what they think.
As for the conductor, you think into his mind, too. He's right, but isn't he also jealous of the cellist for being the one to see and rediscover a lost genius? Isn't he miffed when the cellist ignores him, because he's a conductor and subconsciously he expects musicians to do what he tells them even when he's off the podium? And can't he help but recognise that his attempts to stop the cellist's concerts are earning his friend excellent publicity? And he wonders if his wife's passionate attempts to stop him hindering the cellist's tour are based on principle alone or because she is in love with the cellist. Is the conductor, in part, defending his marriage?
Looking into the conductor's mind, you find at bottom that he truly believes that you can't separate the source from the end product. A beautiful house's beauty is lessened by the fact that it was built by slave labour. Origins matter. The Nazi's music may be wonderful, but we listen to it with the same brain that holds images of concentration camps. How can we, the readers, not agree with him and want him to succeed?
Conflict and complexity arise when several motives, or rather when several sets of belief, are incompatible. That is why the friendship ends and the marriage breaks: because all three characters are idealists, and all of them are right. But being right doesn't mean winning. It doesn't mean being happy.
A novel that explores great principles and emotions doesn't have to be a tragedy, but it does have to explore the complexity of humanity, the conflict of souls, by means of compelling action. And what better way to create compelling conflict than by realising that every major character is right, and then having this sense of rightness provoke their actions?
Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com