WHEN CHARACTERS PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING

Almost all of us are engaging, this first full week of April, 2020, in some version of “stay home, stay healthy,” or “shelter in place,” while CORVID-19 continues to have its way with us. I won’t get into why we’re doing this—I’m not a doctor or public health professional—but let’s take a look at the concept of social distancing from the fiction writer’s perspective. What if characters can’t, or at least shouldn’t, hang around each other?

For horror authors or readers, isolating characters is almost rule number one. I get into this in my online Advanced Horror Writing Workshop:

 

In Writing Monsters I talk about monsters bringing out the good and evil in characters, but they’re also an opportunity to bring out the strengths and weaknesses in characters, to reveal what’s imperfect and, therefore, human about them:

If you’ve trapped a cast of characters in an isolated locale and thrown even a single monster at them, those characters will naturally rise to their own overriding impulses, whether that impulse is to protect everyone else at all costs or to protect themselves at all costs.

Keep in mind, too, that monsters can bring out more than simply “good” and “evil” in your characters.

I define a villain as someone whose motivations you understand but whose methods you abhor, and a hero as someone whose motivations you understand and whose methods you admire. In the same way that monsters can bring about this split in method, they can also bring out the resourcefulness in people… Your monsters can allow your characters to exhibit qualities like tenacity, loyalty, trustworthiness, a capacity for forgiveness, and so on. All of these characteristics are brought to the forefront by placing characters in a world full of monsters that force them to act, choose, and become something more (or, tragically, less) than they were before the story began.

In her short story “You Can Stay All Day” (from The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten), author Mira Grant gets into the idea of an inherent weakness in her POV character, Cassandra, who seems to dislike people, is judgmental, and focuses on small things that make her feel superior in some way:

Morning at the zoo was always Cassandra’s favorite time. Everything was bright and clean and full of possibility. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, and so the paths were clean, sparkling in the sunlight, untarnished by chewing gum and wadded-up popcorn boxes.

It was funny, people came to the zoo to goggle at animals they’d never seen outside of books, but it was like they thought that alone was enough to conserve the planet: just paying their admission meant that they could litter, and feed chocolate to the monkeys, and throw rocks at the tigers when they weren’t active enough to suit their sugar-fueled fantasies.

Nothing ruined working with animals like the need to work with people at the same time. But in the mornings, ah! In the mornings, before the gates opened, everything was perfect.

Here we meet a character who is isolating herself on purpose. Cassandra sees herself as a “hero”—or at least superior to the people who don’t live up to her expectations. We clearly see why this woman is in this place at the beginning of this story—she belongs there, she has an emotional connection to the place and a package of expectations and emotional reactions to other people. She is, in her imperfection, entirely and plausibly human.

 

But most of the time we need our characters to interact with other characters in order to exist as real-seeming people. In “Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs,” Chuck Palahniuk wrote:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

Unless, of course, you want your character to start thinking or worrying or wondering! More than a hundred years ago, Bertrand Russell spent a few months in prison for the “crime” of disseminating “pacifist propaganda,’ and had this to say about it when all was said and done:

I found prison in many ways quite agreeable… I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy… and began the work for Analysis of Mind… One time, when I was reading Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, I laughed so loud that the warder came round to stop me, saying I must remember that prison was a place of punishment.

The idea that people might want to live in isolation isn’t new, though statistically speaking it is a bit unusual. After all, prisons use solitary confinement as a way to punish convicts who misbehave, and people who are left in solitary for extended periods do show significant psychological damage as a result.

Authors of various genres have used the threat or reality of isolation to give their characters a challenge or two. It’s seen as so abnormal by most people that once you end up in a confined space, even with a small group of people, it’s not seen as quite as “agreeable” as Bertrand Russell thought. In his science fiction novel The Fortress at the End of TimeJoe McDermott summed it up this way:

The ansible rings true and through it all. The planet called Citadel is the farthest colony of man from Earth. The station called Citadel placed herself above the only desert rock they had in range with enough magnetic fields to sustain a planetary colony against the stellar winds. They gathered ice comets and liquid moons and hurled them upon the surface to inject life into the ground before the damaged battleship’s supply ran out, but it is not enough to sustain a complex economy like Earth’s. It is described as a desert in its lushest places, a wind-blasted moonscape where man has not begun to change the ground. Terraforming is always slow, and as distant as they are relative to the center of cosmic gravity, the speed of terraforming seems even slower to the solar system. Every year, Earth is three weeks faster than us on the Citadel. It is Sisyphean to consider a place like this, and it is Sisyphean to sit here in my little cell and write about what is obvious to everyone: This is a terrible posting at the edge of the human space and time, and everyone here knows it, even you.

The isolated outpost goes back a long way in science fiction in particular, and the most famous of those stories might be “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, the short story that inspired three movie versions:

“It does get crowded, Kinner,” Garry acknowledged. “But I’m afraid we all find it that way at times. Not much privacy in an Antarctic camp.”

“Privacy? What the hell’s that? You know, the thing that really made me weep, was when I saw Barclay marchin’ through here chantin’ ‘The last lumber in the camp! The last lumber in the camp!’ and carryin’ it out to build that house on his tractor. Damn it, I missed that moon cut in the door he carried out more’n I missed the sun when it set. That wasn’t just the last lumber Barclay was walkin’ off with. He was carryin’ off the last bit of privacy in this blasted place.”

Though we know that the CORVID-19 outbreak will eventually come to an end, it’s hard not to be, for lack of a better term, “freaked out” by social distancing and sheltering in place. Honestly, I’ve been working from home for ten years and tend to be at best a “homebody” and at worst a sort of hermit, but even I want to go to a restaurant so bad right now I’m trying not to descend into a screaming panic. My “normal” workdays are being intruded upon by some significant family togetherness time while… and it’s put me now almost two weeks behind schedule, which I can’t honestly even make sense of.

This is NOT a good look for me.

But we have to do what we have to do, and this too shall pass. In fiction, though, it doesn’t always pass. Sometimes it gets worse and worse and worse until we get so far into the downfall of civilization that we’re looking back on the apocalypse. Those are stories that have been around forever. The Bible ends with one. Eugene Thacker, in his book Starry Speculative Corpse put it this way:

Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth—that is, on ourselves—that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.

And I guess I’d rather be in Cellblock A (for Athans family) than in solitary.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

See how deftly I referred to my Advanced Horror Workshop, which just so happens to start up again on May 14th?

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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