Friday, August 07, 2020

Inhabiting Characters' Minds

I realized something a couple of nights ago when I was reading before lights out. By the time I get to bed these days, I really need to escape from all of the depressing and scary thoughts that would otherwise follow me into sleep. I've found that any book works, as long as it holds my attention for that half hour.

For the past week, I've been reading Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai novel, Hiroshima Boy. If you haven't encountered him, Mas is in his 80's, a member of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, and a retired gardener. In this book, he travels back to Hiroshima to bring half of  his dead friend's ashes to the man's sister. On the ferry to Ino, where the woman lives in an assisted living facility, he notices a teenage boy in a red San Francisco T-shirt. Later, he finds the boy's body. Then the ashes he has brought with him disappear, apparently taken by the woman who wandered into his room.

What I realized about this book is that my brain shifts gears when I'm reading it. I am seeing the world through Mas's eyes. I am inhabiting his mind, and the way he thinks is almost like meditation. I'm not good at meditation. It makes me impatient. I want to get it over with and check it off my list and move on. I almost put this book back on my TBR pile. But then I clicked on a news website (in my endless surfing from one website to another looking for good news). There was an article about the 75th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima. Obviously, this was the right time to read this book. So I went back to it -- back into Mas's head. I'm slowing down and letting him take me along at his pace. Having surrendered, I really love this character. Bonus: the plot is intriguing and I'm getting a history lesson from the perspective of a survivor. 

Oddly enough, this has reminded me of Goodfellas. I have watched this movie multiple times. Several times recently because it's among the films I'm discussing in a book about gangster movies. If you haven't seen the movie, it's based on the life of real-life mobster, Henry Hill, who became a government informer. I thought of this movie while reading Hiroshima Boy because watching Goodfellas requires being in Henry Hill's head. Hill is played by Ray Liotta, who provides the exuberant voiceover. We follow Henry from boyhood, when he becomes fascinated with the mobsters who hang out across the street, through his life as an adult criminal, and then his downfall when he is forced to go into the federal witness protection program. What stands out about Henry is his enjoyment of what he does. He "normalizes" the world in which he lives. But the sudden, explosive acts of violence that he and his colleagues engage in are an aspect of this world. These men are criminals and killers. And in the scene that leads up to his arrest, being in Henry Hill's head is like being deranged. He (Liotta) tells us about his crazy day, as he is preparing an elaborate meal, picking up his brother, getting the woman who is transporting his drugs ready for her trip, and worrying about the plane overhead that seems to have him under surveillance. He is high on his own drugs and so tightly wound that a doctor insists on examining him. Being in Henry's head toward the end of the movie is knowing you're in a bad place and -- if you didn't know how his story ends -- you would wonder if he (you) are going to make it out alive.

As a reader/viewer I appreciate the depth of these characters. As a writer, I'm analyzing how I'm brought  so fully into their worlds. I'm also thinking about why I find it impossible to do more than skim American Psycho, and why I still haven't been able to make it through the much less graphic movie. I suspect it's because there is nothing about the protagonist that I can comprehend. There is too much darkness there.

At any rate, it's something to consider as I work on my historical thriller. Do I want to have readers enter my villain's head and understand how he sees the world? Do I want to give him that opportunity to reveal himself? The thing is it could completely change my book. For the reader to go there, I have to go there first. The last time I did that with a character in another book I was working on, I saw the world through his eyes and realized he was not capable of what I wanted him to do. If that happened with my thriller, it would completely screw up my book.

Thinking. . .


Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, I find I'm very selective about what I watch and read right now. I have no trouble concentrating but am attracted to classics and old books that I've always loved. Real world drama is more than I can handle. There's an old county western song "Stop the world and let me off. I'm tired of going round and round." Ain't that the truth.

Rick Blechta said...

If you have not seen Montalbano based on the Camillieri series, I recommend it highly. It's quirky, individualistic, very Italian and completely entertaining. I believe it's available in the States on either Netflix or We have been enjoying it for over a month now nearly every night.