Writing Right with Dmitri: More Nuance
I'm just taking a break from watching The Godfather II, because my watching partner is off doing something else. I'm rather surprised at how much I'm enjoying the Godfather films after such a long time. I never used to like gangster pictures at all, even as a kid. Even with Edward G Robinson in, although he was a fine actor. I never thought gangsters had much to teach me. I'm learning that I was wrong.
Of course, it helps that these films were based on the writings of Mario Puzo. Puzo was an amazing writer. The films are impressive on their own: the settings, cinematography, and structure are very satisfying. But that's not what I'm learning about. I'm learning about nuance.
Gangsters aren't nice people. They kill people. They do other illegal things, like control gambling and build hellholes like Las Vegas and sell illegal drugs, and run prostitution rings. They put horse's heads in movie producers' beds, for heaven's sake. (Okay, the movie producer deserved that, but the poor horse hadn't done anybody any harm.) None of those things make the world a better place to live in. So why do I spend most of these films secretly rooting for the Corleones?
Well, for one thing, the other people in the story are just as bad. Only they're hypocritical about it. The Corleones, Vito and Michael, are clear-eyed and honest in their dishonesty. Also, Vito and Michael have a code. Okay, it's a 2,000-year-old Klingon-style honour code, and it doesn't look any better on them than it did on the ancient Romans, but at least they're consistent. And they leave the women and children out of their machinations, which makes them a cut above what else is out there on the screen.
And then there's the whole immigration issue, which gets full coverage in this version of events. Italians weren't considered 'white' back in Vito Corleone's childhood, and the way the US treated immigrants was often shabby. They get your sympathy. It's somewhat understandable that when they failed to get justice from people in authority, they created their own. This is food for thought.
What stands out most, though, is the way their system rewards loyalty and punishes betrayal. The Corleones compare favourably in this respect to, say, the Borgias. Judged by Renaissance standards, they're downright admirable. But I'm not discussing the films of Francis Ford Coppola in order to suggest that we need to go back to the days of Italian city-states and warlords. I'm inviting you to think some more about nuance.
Puzo and Coppola manage to present an extremely nuanced version of the Cosa Nostra story. They've created characters who ring true – with the help of some very talented (and bilingual) actors. They've made the places and times come alive. As an audience member, you get to experience complex situations, and you are invited to try to understand the reasoning behind the characters' actions.
Contrast this, if you will, with the Harry Potter film you saw over Christmas. Or a piece of Marvel fiction. You see the difference? I hope you do. Because I hope you want to try to write like Puzo, not like Ms Rowling or the graphic novel set.
How do you do that? You need to use your experience. The deeper your own experience, the better your imagination will be. The more nuanced your own thinking, the more nuanced your writing will become. If you tend to make snap judgements about people, it will show in your work. If you are truly interested in other people, and you want to know what makes them tick, that, too, will show up when you write.
Believe it or not – and you may not – I'm not just talking about fiction writing. Fiction doesn't make up most of what you write. You write Guide Entries (I hope), which aren't fiction. You write reports. You write letters and emails. You might even do a bit of copywriting, such as an announcement for h2g2, or an editorial, or a church bulletin or club newsletter. . .
And you know what? You reveal your interest in others – or lack thereof – in everything you write. Your observational skills will show. To write nuanced, you have to think nuanced. Like Puzo. Sometime, when you have the time, read his book The Dark Arena. It's not about the Mafia. It's about postwar Germany, a place and time he knew well, because he was there. Reading it, you can tell how observant Puzo was. He obviously involved himself in the life around him. He cared about people. How do I know? Because he couldn't not have cared, and then written about the people in his stories. William Styron didn't seem to care. That's why his characters don't come across as real people, even when they were people he knew personally.
Anyway, that's what I'm learning from The Godfather. What about you? Maybe a book or film will make you an offer you can't refuse. Feel free to tell us about it. Even if you don't, we might be able to tell in the next story or essay you write. We might pick up on the nuances.