I am simultaneously reading two books right now. One is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (this is a reread for me) and the other is Anon, Sir,Anon by Rachel Heffington. I’ve written about Lavinia before. Richly steeped in the world of ancient Italy, it is the story of a minor character from Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only is it a remarkable portrayal of a woman who is strong without falling into modern tropes or cultural expectations, but, in the true spirit of Virgil’s original epic, it is also an examination of the concepts of piety and virtue. I am discovering all kinds of themes and ideas that I had not noticed the first time.
Ms. Heffington’s book is a period murder mystery, set (as the book jacket tells us) “against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog.” Thus far it is enjoyable in its own way. The character who most interests me is the eccentric, Shakespeare-quoting, cantankerous old uncle who eschews relations and solves murders. The language is bright and sprightly, full of the obvious influence of various English authors from past eras (perhaps especially P.G. Wodehouse). It is in the handling of the characters that Ms. Heffington’s relative inexperience shows most. I find myself sometimes unsatisfied as a scene progresses. I wish to remain absorbed in the story, but little flaws--little clouds in the clarity of the author’s purpose when a character speaks or acts--arise to push me back to the status of objective observer and critic. It is not reasonable to expect every author to write with the skill of Mrs. Le Guin, but it is instructive to ask oneself what the difference is.
When I read Lavinia, every single word communicates to me. The feelings and personalities of the characters feel utterly real. If a situation is ambiguous, I know that it is on purpose. When I read “lesser” authors, I usually know what they are trying to tell me, but sometimes they fumble. Sometimes I am not sure whether or not a given impression was intentional. Sometimes their characters seem unintentionally inconsistent, or it seems as if the character may have said their line merely because the author thought the line was funny or clever, instead of because the line tells the reader something about the character. I'm sure my own stories have this problem, as well.
I am trying to form hypotheses about what causes these differences. I think certain mistakes tend to rob a passage of narrative power:
1. Too many minor emotions in one scene. The protagonist and other characters are afflicted with a whole chain of feelings (embarrassment, pique, amusement, fear, etc.) without proper build-up.
2. Vagueness of purpose. If an author has made it clear that a particular character is, say, overly imaginative and inclined to be unduly fearful, I accept scenes in which the character behaves that way. If the author instead makes the character just a little too imaginative or fearful in a random moment or two, I tend to suspect that the author is unintentionally overdoing the scene. This makes me frustrated.