16 November 2006

NaNo – Day 16, Generations In The Warplace

I spend a great deal of my working day listening to war stories. Literal war stories from veterans who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and Iraq. It's not only that I get paid to listen; the story and the process of telling the story are a fascinating study of variations in narrative building. Generational differences are obvious. A World War II veteran remembers everything, and his story has a definite beginning, middle, and end. Every detail from induction to what kind of food they served on a destroyer is engraved in his memory. It is all relayed in a matter of fact way.

The Vietnam era vets I talk with are very closed mouthed. The details they give are narrowly focused, and usually emotion laden. When they speak of a particular smell, sometimes their eyes glaze over and you know they are reliving it. Although reluctant to speak openly, the story they tell is colored with sensations. They are masters at sketching the detail with a few, carefully chosen words.

The vets returning from the Middle East are not afraid to speak their minds. They are blunt and almost as matter of fact as their grandfathers, but there is also a tinge of awe to their stories. A sort of 'I was there and did that, but it was all like a game. Sometimes I think it wasn't real.' The ones that are eager to talk of their experiences talk and talk as if trying to achieve catharsis by reexamining the minutia of their tour. They have all the details of a World War II veteran, but none of the natural storytelling ability. There is no beginning, middle, and end, just a steady stream of seemingly unrelated images.

When writing characters, it's good to remember the differences between the types. My male antagonist is squarely in the WWII veteran camp. He gives great thought to what he does, how to present it, and when to add detail for effect. My male god is similar to the Vietnam vets. He has been so scared by his past, he is reluctant to speak of it for fear the emotions will rise up and consume him. My male secondary character floats through life rehashing his experiences and trying to figure out what turn in the path he missed that messed up his life and brought him to this point.

Female veterans and the wives of veterans fall into a different category altogether. They are so used to erecting protective barriers, that it is reflexive to wear a mask. The military is still a boy's playground and the women who dig in the sandbox are very much aware that they don't really belong, no matter how they act. If only they could recapture the female goddess in themselves, they could be strong in a way that fit them. My female protagonist is still trying on other people's skins. How she should act as daughter, mother, warrior, lover. To her, all the personas are separate. She needs to learn to integrate her many strengths into one. It may be the only thing that saves her daughter and the kingdom from disaster.

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