A Session with Robert M. Herzog
My novel, A World Between, began with musings about the nature of matter. That’s probably not the first thing you think about when creating compellingly readable fiction. Yet those ideas, a speculation on the duality of matter – its strange ability to appear as both particles and waves – were what drove me to write a book about them.
In early drafts, I had long sections of paragraph after paragraph of idea exposition that populated the middle section of the book. I had set up what I think was an interesting situation, as captured by the opening lines of the book:
“Parts of the world were disappearing; for a while, nobody noticed.”
And I’d gotten to an intense ending, a clash of psyches propelled by the history and character of the two main protagonists. But in between, I was having trouble. I wanted to unfold new ideas about physics and fractal geometry. To do so, I felt I had to both give background, as to the current state of knowledge and how we arrived at it, and then push to new thresholds of perception that derived, for me and my characters, from that starting point.
But on and on the explanations could go! In the process, I could see how all but the most dedicated reader would be lost, that the action stopped, that such tension as had been created got dissipated.
It took more than just cutting to solve the problem. I needed to make my characters embody the concepts and precepts of the ideas they were confronting, clashing about, trying to understand, and solve. Their beliefs would propel their actions and words which in turn were representations of their beliefs.
When we first meet Susan Corporell, she is in Africa, confronting a phenomenon both inexplicable and terrifying. She only wants to get away from it, forget it as best she can, but she is drawn into finding someone who can not only understand it but also can combat it. So here she is on her way to that meeting:
Parts of the world were disappearing. Tell me something I don’t know.
That’s what Susan thought as she flipped through the files in her briefcase while driving up the Saw Mill River Parkway to meet with somebody who probably didn’t have any more clues than anyone else. Nobody had noticed. Hello, she thought. If I’m missing a shirt, after a while I search the closets, go to the laundry. People just questioned the reports; everybody wanted to be staff now, nobody was willing to go in the field.
She’s a field worker, not a policy wonk. She lacks patience for people who babble, for inaction in the face of need, for those who keep food in warehouses while people outside are starving. She represents a grounded reality that she shares with many readers, not a deep understanding of abstractions but a fierce assessment of the human spirit and a desire to make things better. No wonder she’s not happy with her assignment:
Physicists did not make her comfortable. In college the “History of Science” course she had to take to meet her requirements had been taught by a physicist. He mumbled; when someone asked him a question he would write on the blackboard, then turn around so his body covered the answer, hold up his hands and say, “How’s this?” For a French lit major, it had been a trying semester.
But onward she must go, to try to involve a physicist in a problem that is literally shredding the fabric of reality. But from the first moment, meeting David Altaforce presents a challenge, and the way he poses it and the way she responds are both indicative of their personalities and the way they approach the world:
The front of the house was simple: two large windows set in a white cedar board wall flanked a brown wooden door with a brass doorknob. Susan walked up the winding path to the door without hesitation, rang the bell.
“It’s open, come on in.” She heard a voice that sounded close by on the other side. She tried the door knob. It was locked. “Come on in,” the voice repeated. The voice was very clear, as if it was right there, right next to her.
“It’s locked,” she cried back to it.
“What’s locked?” said the voice, sounding like she could touch it.
“The door, goddammit, let me in.”
“Test your assumptions,” the voice replied.
She tried the door knob again. It wouldn’t turn.
“All right, play your silly ass game.” She leaned back, and shot out her right foot to give the door the hard swift kick the voice deserved.
“Whoa,” she heard him shout, as her foot seemed to go into the door. Off balance, she stumbled, nearly falling in.
“What the…” She glared at the door. Slowly she stepped back up to it, then reached out to touch it. Her fingers met no resistance. She barely could see past her wrist, and then felt someone shaking her hand.
“Welcome — well done. I’ve had graduate students of logic come here and never get in.” A slight tug, and she walked through the door.
Altaforce stood before her, grinning, black mock turtleneck draped over a tall lean body, standing up straighter than she had expected of a professor of physics. He looked amused, which further irritated her.
So these two people, who are destined to combine their perspectives and beliefs to combat a challenge to the world as they know it, immediately establish a sense of how different they are and how their personalities drive their actions while at the same time embody very different approaches to the world, rational and scientific versus visceral and driven to action.
Think of a Big Idea that fascinates you. Something in science, or economics. Some trait of human nature you see as basic but odd. A current phenomenon that intrigues but baffles you. Then think of the antithesis of that idea, its opposite concept, behavior, attitude, or standard. The world behaves in this way; its opposite is that. Articulate the clash of ideas.
Now connect a person to the two sides of your Big Idea – its expression, and its opposite. Create a backstory about them that explains in some way how it is they came to embody the ideas they represent. Now have them argue, or disagree, or fight, in a way that stems from their clash of fundamental precepts, but which they never articulate directly, so the action – whether verbal or physical – is laden with underlying belief and emotion which is never expressly stated.