photo by Peter Towle
by Tess St. Clair-Ford
We’re often told that all good fiction stems from conflict, and I think there’s a tendency amongst us writers to misinterpret that, writing characters full of misery. I appreciate lesson one of creative writing: what’s at stake for your character? There needs, undoubtedly, to be an urgency or a direction for characters – otherwise the writing can be stultifying. Never is this truer than in the short story genre, where in conventional terms things have to move forwards at what can be, for the writer, neck breaking speed.
So what about happy characters? Are they, necessarily, boring to read? Is there a lack of conflict in contentment which makes it off-limits as a subject for the short story writer? There’s something rebellious in me that says, why always conflict? I want to write about happiness! I want to describe a narrative arc where my protagonists make all the right decisions. Would this be dull or, worse, unbearably smug?
We’re all too aware of the satisfying nature of a happy ending but I think the tendency as writers of contemporary fiction is to deal with the dysfunctional, the conflicted, the problematic as more ‘meaty’ topics. In Mike Leigh’s recent (ish) film, Another Year, he centres his character-driven narrative around a happily married couple. Happily married! How can that entertain us? Leigh has always been a nonconformist, but his essentially contented central characters become a locus for their not-so-functional friends, and herein lies the drama of the film. Reviewers have suggested that fans of the film are likely, themselves, to ‘adhere to cosy, conservative domesticity’ as Another Year ultimately uplifts and validates that kind of happiness. Is there anything wrong with that? No, but isn’t it interesting that it is considered nonconformist to deal with people who are normal, happy, contented in their everyday lives?
Writing this, I’m racking my brains for examples of happy characters in fiction. I think of smug protagonists who are dealt their come-uppance, or others who struggle to overcome obstacles before achieving a happy ending. Maybe – instead of being a soft option – happiness is actually too hard to write about; too ephemeral a thing to portray ‘truthfully’ in fiction? But isn’t it the perfect source of the light and shade we hope to find in writing – not of conflict, but of colour, of experience. I shall keep trying, I think, to write that happy character. To deal with something that we all strive for, and to see through conflict to find a certain contentment instead.