Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the twenty-fourth chapter, “Irony Doesn’t Have To Be the Enemy of Feels. They Can Team Up, In Fact!” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Section V: How to Use Writerly Tricks to Gain Unstoppable Powers
Irony Doesn’t Have To Be the Enemy of Feels. They Can Team Up, In Fact!
When I think about the stories that have gotten me through the worst times in the world, two storytelling powers come to mind. The most life-saving narratives have given me the tools to rise up and see the walls of the maze from above. Or else they’ve helped me to get into someone else’s skin and see their perspective, and maybe helped me to believe in the power of human connection.
In other words, irony and empathy.
People talk about irony as if it’s some sort of arch, eyebrow-raising post-modern exercise in saying that nothing means anything. Nothing even matters. Irony has also been tarnished, in recent years, by the flood of people being “ironically racist” and/or “ironically misogynistic.” But used skillfully, irony is a tool of subversion against the powerful—a method of revealing the truth, rather than claiming that truth is irrelevant. As anyone who’s ever seen a clever quote-tweet knows, irony can expose hypocrisy and point out the flaws in the logic of our ruling classes.
Like I said last time, juxtaposition is the heart of irony—including comparing the highfalutin speeches of politicians with the reality of their actions. Or showing the direct contrast between someone’s actions in one setting and in another. Irony is about shifts in perspective, redrawing the lines. I live for that shit, especially in fiction. (And this is one reason why I push back so hard against writing experts who say there’s only one right way to handle POV, or that you can’t show more than one person’s point of view in a single chapter.)
Meanwhile, empathy is important in fiction in a couple of ways. 1) Showing the humanity (or personhood) of a bunch of characters, including people who might not seem sympathetic at first. Nobody is an NPC, everybody has thoughts and dreams and random food cravings. 2) Modeling empathy among your characters and showing how people can understand each other in spite of all the totally legit and valid reasons to never put up with each other.
There’s a reason why these essays started out talking about big themes and have ended up talking about nuts-and-bolts stuff like perspective, narration, pacing and structure. You can’t achieve the liberation that those early essays talk about without the full tool kit: the ability to control the focus of the story so that you can show contrasts, highlight certain moments, and shift perspectives at will.
Empathy and irony might appear at first to be opposites, or mutually exclusive. One is about getting right inside someone’s state of mind, exposing the contents of their heart with total sympathy. The other is about pulling back, exposing the disconnects between reality and what someone believes.
But not only can the empathic and the ironic modes coexist, they actually work great together. In fact, the more keenly we feel someone’s yearning or rage, the sharper the effect when we see what they’re missing or willfully ignoring. I often think about the famous scene in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling when Mrs. Waters is determined to seduce Tom over dinner, but the ravenously hungry Tom is obsessed only with his food—Fielding gives us both perspectives at once through a mock-heroic narration, so we sympathize with these two (temporarily) incompatible hungers at the same time.
Empathy means getting out of the way
That said, it’s hard to generate empathy if you’re constantly judging your characters, revealing their utter hypocrisy, undercutting all their motivations. The first step in being able to empathize with your characters, in fact, is to get out of the way and let them feel what they feel, without intruding with your own opinions.
This is where POV and narration come in: the stronger your control over these things, the deeper you can get into someone’s mental state. With a first-person narrator, everything hangs on how well you can capture their voice and infuse every word with the intensity of their feelings and thoughts. Their anxieties, their dreams. And with a third-person narrator, it’s all about capturing someone’s internal monologue with as little filter as possible.
But also, I’ve learned the hard way not to let my sense of humor, or my love of weirdness, undercut the characters.
I had one short story, a few years ago, which I couldn’t finish, even though I really liked the first two-thirds and felt like it had tons of potential. I kept poking at it, for months, trying to figure out what I needed to add to make it work — until I realized that all I had to do was cut one scene, which revealed that my main character was a terrible person from her own POV. That scene was making it impossible for me to invest fully in that character, and also breaking my belief in her perspective, even though it cracked me up. As soon as that scene was gone, I was all in for this character, and I saw exactly how to end their story.
And in earlier drafts of All the Birds in the Sky, there were many places where I kept throwing the characters under the bus for the sake of a really good joke. I had to go through, systematically, and making sure that the humor wasn’t coming at the expense of Laurence or Patricia. Like, I had a funny line where Laurence is talking to his girlfriend Serafina: “Laurence tried to fill the silence with more active listening.” This felt like the narrator was making fun of Laurence, so I eventually switched it so Laurence himself was thinking, “I wish I could use active listening to fill the silence.” Not a big change—but it kept us in Laurence’s perspective.
Writing a young adult novel, in first person, was really good for me. I gathered up my favorite YA books and spread them out around me as I sat on the floor, paging through them and trying to see how they beamed emotion and urgency right into my brain. I wanted the narrative voice of Victories Greater Than Death to be wisecracking and funny, but also passionate, idealistic, outraged, terrified. I obsessively studied the narrative voices in books by Holly Black, Suzanne Collins, Bethany C. Morrow, and Tracy Deonn among others.
Took me a dozen drafts before I got Tina saying things like, “I feel frozen to the marrow, like I’ve waded neck-deep into a lake on the bleakest day of winter,” but also “I buy ultra-spicy chips and ultra-caffeinated sodas, the perfect fuel for confronting ass-hattery (ass-millinery?).”
A lot of it comes down to laughing (or screaming) with your characters, rather than at them. But also, like I said before, I read for human connection. And seeing people having empathy for each other is one of the best ways to develop empathy for them. There’s a reason why “enemies to friends” is such a huge trope—we all want to believe that people can learn to understand each other, and that a strong negative emotion can soften into something more nurturing. Plus of course, sweetness is always sweeter when it replaces bitterness.
Irony can be incredibly lazy
We live in a moment where storytelling is just drenched in a kind of reflexive irony. Even before we had exhaustive online catalogues of tropes, we were all dreadfully familiar with the old assassin/spy who gets disturbed in their secluded cabin retreat, to be summoned on One Last Mission. We all knew the story of an older college professor who has an affair with one of his grad students by heart. The Simpsons taught us to lampoon the cop who dies tragically the day before they’re supposed to retire.
We’re marinating in this hyper-awareness of clichés, and meanwhile we’re constantly told that every story has already been told. (Which is true as far as it goes—there are an infinite number of untold stories, but they will inevitably share some basic characteristics with the ones that already exist.) So it’s tempting to fall back on a reflexive sort of dissociation, where all stories are inherently derivative and pointless in the end. Tempting, but lazy.
The answer isn’t to avoid irony, but to replace stale irony with a fresher variety. Make all the situations in your stories feel brand-new, by pouring emotion and vivid details and a strong point of view into them, and then draw back the curtain and show the rest of the picture that undermines, or complicates, what we just saw.
Irony works way better if we care.
And irony doesn’t have to be particularly funny, as Kurt Vonnegut proved. For years, I’d been thinking of Vonnegut as a funny writer, but then I went back and re-read a big chunk of Breakfast of Champions and discovered a vicious, angry, sarcastic misanthrope who uses devices like defamiliarization (e.g., explaining things we already know about as if we’d never heard of them) to jar us out of our complacency and certainty.
My favorite type of irony is when it’s poignant and sad and weird, when the folly that’s being exposed is tragic. I also love it when a story encourages us to laugh at a pathetic character, until we start to sympathize with their downfall—like poor Malvolio in Twelfth Night, with his yellow garters.
Another way that irony can be better: subvert the characters’ expectations, rather than the audience’s. It’s very easy to fool an audience, because they only know what you tell them. Like the countless movies and TV shows where you think the cops are about to burst into a basement where someone is held captive, because of clever editing and framing, but then the cops burst into an empty cellar, and meanwhile the captive is still alone. But it’s way more satisfying, if harder to pull off, if a character believes something and then has the rug pulled out from under them.
I also think hard about which characters in the story are allowed to have real interior lives, and which ones are just having what I call “comedy feelings” (i.e., feelings that are just heightened and exaggerated and usually very id-based.) Like, I’ve just been watching the Harley Quinn animated show, and it’s noticeable that only Harley and Poison Ivy are allowed to have complex interiority. Everyone else has feelings that are played exclusively for laughs.
I’ve found over and over again that I get a lot of mileage from stopping and drilling down into the head of a hitherto one-dimensional supporting character. When I flip things around and try to see the whole story from the POV of the sidekick, or the henchperson, or the antagonist, I suddenly get a whole extra layer to the action. And that’s a type of irony that can be both poignant and kinda jarring.
Playing with tone and perspective and time and voice is a way to make the story more interesting, and maybe to push it into a more efficient shape. But those same tricks can also help you to balance ironic distance with emotional insights.
When you create a story, you’re aiming to capture genuine emotion on the page — but also, to get an emotional response out of the reader. You want someone to laugh, freak out, scream, get choked up. And generally, you get those reactions either by focusing on your characters and their feelings, making them as intense on the page as you can, or by making the reader aware that you, the author, are dancing a fancy dance. Those are both excellent ways to create a reaction—and the great news is, you don’t have to choose between them. You can give us emotive protagonists and authorial soft-shoe, in the same story, as long as your dancing doesn’t step on the characters too much.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.