How to Carve Out Space for Character Development in a Violent Setting

17 Jun
Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction for his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. The stories are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

The stories in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

There are places in the world that dictate the type of stories that happen there. Violence exerts an overwhelming gravitational pull, and a story that at first has nothing to do with violence—a love story, or a story about family or business—will eventually get pulled into orbit around the violence that exists in the place. Set a story in Mosul, Iraq, and it will eventually run across militants and dead bodies. The key as the writer is not to avoid the violence at all costs but to resist it for as long as possible—in other words, to allow the story to develop dimensions beyond the inevitable.

An excellent example of this resistance can be found in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” It was included in his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. You can read it now at Narrative Magazine.

How the Story Works

If you hear a reference to Juarez, Mexico, you automatically prepare yourself to hear a story about violence. For a time, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the residents on either side of the border knows real stories of people who have been murdered or kidnapped. From the safe distance of Washington D.C., it’s possible to believe that violence is the only thing happening there. And yet the people who live along the border go about their lives, and so, as a writer, it’s crucial to push back against the readers’ expectations of cartel executions. It’s necessary to find a way to create characters who have lives that exist outside of, or alongside, the violence.

This is exactly what Sáenz does in his story. In it, two men meet at a coffee shop in El Paso. One is American, and the other is Mexican. The border, and it’s associations, are present from the beginning but not at the center of the story, which instead follows the developing romance between the two men. It’s not until a third of the way through the story that violence forces itself onto the page:

Monday morning, I got this text from him: I thought about you when I woke up this morning. I read the text and then reread it. And then reread it again.

I felt like a schoolboy reading a note from a girl. No. A note from a boy.

I didn’t know how to answer his text. I only engaged in the practice because my nephews and nieces demanded it of me. We wrote silly and affectionate things to each other. But this was different. Finally around noon, I texted him back. Stay safe. That’s what I wrote. That’s when it occurred to me that I was afraid. I didn’t like to think of Javier walking the streets of Juárez, doing an errand, going to a store and getting killed, randomly, for no reason. What good does it do to be afraid? He was right. Of course he was right. But so many people had left already. Why couldn’t he leave too? I knew the answer to that question even before I asked it. He wasn’t the leaving kind. He loved his Juárez. I could see that in his eyes, in his unshaven face, in the way he moved and talked. I could almost taste his love for that poor and wretched city in his kisses. It enraged me that Juárez had become so chaotic and violent and capricious. A city hungry for the blood of its own people. How had this happened? I was sick to death of it, sick to death of the body count, sick to death that every killing went unprosecuted and unpunished. You could kill anybody. And what would happen? Nothing. The fucking city no longer cared who was killed. Soon, they would just be stepping over the bodies. Stay safe. Stay safe. Stay safe.

Because Sáenz has created characters with lives and concerns other than avoiding violence, he’s able to make their interactions with the violence personal, as opposed to the generic way that cable news viewers react against stories of border violence.

So, how does Sáenz create these characters without letting them be overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds them? First, he introduces us to them in a place that lies outside of the violence: a coffee shop in El Paso, the safer side of the border. Of course, a coffee shop doesn’t have to be safe. Think about the coffee shop scene in the film Children of Men. When the bomb explodes, the viewer understands that no place in the film is safe. Sáenz could have done that in his story, but if he had, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know the characters except as people caught in violence—which is how we know Clive Owen’s character in the film. But the point is to know these characters as more fully developed people. So, Sáenz puts them in a safe place and shows us nuances of their lives:

I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.

He drank his coffee black. Not that I knew that.

Sometimes, I could see that he’d just come in from a run, his dark wavy hair wild and half wet with sweat.

He was thin and had to shave twice a day. But he only shaved once. There was always that shadow on his face. Even in the morning light he appeared to be half hidden.

Sáenz develops these details. The two men have conversations about their jobs and families, and when the violence is mentioned, it’s in the contexts of these things. For instance, here’s one of the men, Javier, talking about his uncle, who has cancer and whose care is being managed by Javier:

“He used to love to go out. He would laugh and tell me about how life used to be for him. Now, he won’t go out. He’s afraid. Before, the only thing he was afraid of was my aunt. Now, he’s like a boy. He cries. He reads the newspapers. He thinks he’s living in Juárez. I tell him that we’re in El Paso, that he’s safe. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s afraid to go out. Nos matan, he says. I try to tell him that no one’s going to hurt us. But it’s no use. Every time I go out he tells me to be careful.”

By the end of the story, when the violence cannot be avoided, its inevitable arrival is so much more personal than if it had been directly present all along.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create characters in the midst of some overwhelming situation, using Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women,” as a model:

  1. Determine the overwhelming situation. As the writer Ron Carlson says, every story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. Almost every story, including blockbuster films whose sole purpose of existence is to blow stuff up, spends time developing the characters who will be consumed by the situation. In blockbuster films and many genre novels, though, the character development is as lean and minimal as possible (think of the description of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). In those stories, the violence or destruction (or aliens, monsters) shows up almost immediately. But in Sáenz’s story, the violence doesn’t really appear until the end. So, decide what situation will eventually consume your characters: violence, family or marriage drama, economic distress, death, disease, or any inescapable deadline.
  2. Determine how that situation will affect the characters. You can be succinct. Someone will die, get sick, get divorced, get shipped off to prison or war or work in some far-off place, or get fired. Know where your story is headed.
  3. Put the characters in a place that is outside of the situation. You likely already know how the characters will behave or respond when the situation presents itself. There are, frankly, only so many ways that people can respond to inescapable deadlines or outcomes. Now, find out how your characters behave when the deadline is out of sight and (mostly) out of mind. Find a location where this is possible, some emotionally neutral or positive place. Put them there and see what they do. What other parts of their lives are revealed?
  4. Choose one of those parts and develop it. Sáenz gives Javier an ailing uncle, and that uncle’s health worsens. Think about the parts of your characters’ lives that you discovered: how can you make those parts dramatic? How can they change or develop (improve or worsen)? How can this change draw other characters into the person’s life? It is this dramatic arc that you’ll focus your story on. The inevitable deadline or outcome will arrive eventually, but if you make the reader forget that it’s there, its arrival will be all the more effective and impactful.

Good luck!

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