From the remote past to the contemporary present: the challenge of the writer!
What makes a story truly unforgettable?
The answers could be obvious: the protagonists, their vicissitudes, defeats and triumphs, loves and disappointments. Inner growth.
And yet, if we think about it, there is another element, one that we often don’t care about, not immediately, at least. We take it almost for granted, until we begin to go into the story. At that point, even after many years, in our subconscious we will associate to the given book not a face, not a precise episode, or a name, but a whole universe.
The mind will magically repopulate us in a different age, near or far, and we will feel nostalgia for a city that perhaps we have never visited, or that does not even exist. Because reading does not only mean becoming aware of imaginative facts, but also, and above all, descending into a world different from one’s own.
I am not referring to the mere setting, but to everything that makes it up, from the historical period to the extras that populate it.
Stripped of his tragic revolutionary Paris, Hugo’s “Les Miserables” possessed the same emotional charge?
Without its Victorian London, would the infamous Sherlock Holmes have become equally iconic?
And what to say of the famous Stephen King, who with his works gave birth to a state of Maine receptacle of horrors, perceived with restlessness and fascination by millions of readers around the globe!
I could go on and on, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
Now, the next question is: how can a writer make a certain narrative context credible (or incredible)? In short, how can he create the perfect illusion in which to make his readers lose? And what challenges must he face during his metaphorical journey?
In this case the answer is anything but simple.
Let’s start with what we (in theory) know best, or our contemporaneity.
We 21st century people are weird types, right? We consume, much more than in the past, and for obvious reasons, TV series, films, audiovisual programs and all kinds of media. Over the years we have come to raise some of them (and I don’t mean the thing from a negative point of view, not necessarily) to model status, even imitating them, but reality, everyday life, could not be more distant from reality.
How many of us in everyday life, in those circumstances, express themselves as the actors we love? How many of us, going to work, or to school, do we recognize in our thoughts, in our moods, or even in the clothes that characterize our favorites?
Very few, I would venture. Nevertheless, today, it is what we perceive as “authentic”.
We are addicted to clichés and stereotypes and, paradoxically, we look for them always and everywhere.
Here, then, that in the “Tarantine” style, the irreverent characters of metropolitan novels go down heavy with sarcasm and curses, moving between famous golden and romantic or cynical and ruthless megalopolises. The ordinariness is reduced to a faint grayscale, and the more grotesque and exacerbated the situations, the more likely they seem to us.
Therefore, it is not a matter of “portraying the truth”, of reporting the events on a 1: 1 scale, but of playing with commonplaces, and of guessing (yes, really guessing) the tastes of the public without boring them.
To quote Mark Twain, truth is stranger than fantasy, because fantasy is forced to stick to the probable, while truth cannot.
An extremely similar discourse could be made for historical, gothic or “appendage” novels.
Here the skill lies not only in respecting the desires of the public, in satisfying a certain type of imaginary, but it passes mainly through language, that which in modern texts refers to (precisely) the Cinema.
The writer’s Bible, in the genres mentioned above, ceases to be Hollywood, and addresses a completely different meter: the Classics (those with a capital letter, already).
Personalities such as Alexandre Dumas, Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, Stoker and many others have for centuries shaped our perception of times gone by, even in this case (twist!) Idealizing it wildly.
Perhaps the term “commercial”, nowadays used most often in a derogatory manner, did not exist in the age of those great men (and women), or perhaps existed in a more positive and progressive perspective; the fact is that their immortal works embodied, and still embody, the finest balance between “author’s vision” and “ruffianeria”.
Let us not forget that at that time the “600-page humanist bricks” were published in installments in all kinds of magazines, and it was the public, in a hugely more incisive way than today, who decreed their success or failure, week after week.
Obviously times change, the public also, but the ideas remain: the use of “you” in direct speeches; the passion for melodrama; fetishism for sought-after adjectives; the bon ton; the great European cities excited by patriotism and the tormented gentlemen animated by a spirit of sacrifice.
These (but not only) are the elements, in my opinion, essential to make the best of the genre. Dogmi, if we want to call them that, essential.
Because they are the quintessence of a dimension that we will never know directly, a reality that, however miserable and unjust, was outside the orderly pages of the feuilleton, it will always remain, for us romantics, an era of marvelous epics, both for good and for bad.
Yes, I know, some of you expected me to talk about the usual “I do a lot of research!” Or “months and months of direct observation in the field!” And “read, read and read again!”. What can I say? Unlike millions of similar articles, I take certain things for granted, so much so that I would be lacking in respect to me and you in listing them again (let alone build an entire article!).
Too often we find ourselves in front of novels that slam in the face on the first page a “New York, Today” or an “England, Thousand-eight hundred-that-that-is”, without keeping a minimum of identity to follow. For the series “it could also be set under my house”.
Inadequate descriptions, informal and modern language, credible as an archaic and sought-after in a Brox neighborhood, or the unlikely reactions of the characters in front of a particular temporal context.
What I try to explain, as a writer, but also as a reader, is that the setting (a term that is all too vague, I realize) is a full-fledged character. He is a co-protagonist, the most important, the one who can make the difference in the long run. It should never be underestimated.
After all, another abused quotation, the important thing is not the destination, but the journey, and in a good novel the journey is like a soundstage: every act of the show must have its characteristic scenography. Without it there would be only four morons in costume in front of a papier-mache background.