…and then another me grabbed me and shook me and said, “I don’t want to dream about me being a mansplaining jerk to a stranger!”
And I woke up.
For what seemed a minute I was very angry at myself for being rude and a mansplainer to that woman. Then I realized that I had been dreaming, and there wasn’t a real woman who I had been rude to. Which started this argument in my head about whether me dreaming about being a jerk was ethically any different than actually being a jerk to a real person. Because, for instance, if I write a story in which a character is a jerk to another character and I write the story in such a way as to portray the jerk as being in the right, no real person is hurt, but I’m still condoning someone being a jerk… and… and… and…
By which time I squinted at the clock, realized that it was a couple hours before my alarm was due to go off, and maybe I should stop thinking about this dream, make a run to the bathroom, then get a glass of water, and try to get back to sleep before I had to wake up and interact with real people.
I am continuously amazed at how my subconscious works. I’ve pulled myself out of dreams many times. Other times I really wanted for a dream to stop and it wouldn’t. I do think this is the first time I’ve ever made myself wake up because I was mansplaining. Maybe that’s worth a chuckle.
I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
It’s worth thinking about, at least!
Interior: Gene’s mind, wee small hours of Saturday morning.
I’m dreaming. I’m hanging out with a friend who died not quite two years ago.
We have a lovely talk about things I’m writing now, people we both care about, things I’m worrying about.
We went for a long walk in a lovely wooded area.
We stopped to sit somewhere and look at the view. One of my favorite pencils is sitting on a table. Along with a bunch of very small slips of paper.
I start writing. I write an entire… something. A scene? A story? I’m not sure.
I look up.
I tell her it’s all finished. Then I look down, and see that all of the slips of paper covered with my writing are in a small box, but all jumbled.
“You’ll have to put them back into order,” she says.
“I can do that now,” I say. I look back up.
She’s standing again. In different, but still comfy clothes. “Yes, but not here,” she says. She points into the woods. “I’m going this way.” She points behind me. “You’re going that way.”
I look, and there is an ordinary road. One I sort of recognize. It looks a bit like the winding road down a hill that I used to drive on a lot when I was a teen-ager. I had three different friends who lived on the hill above the town we all attended school in, back then.
There is a car. It has one of the Lyft light things in the front. There is a driver, but I can’t really see him.
“But I don’t want to go back,” I say.
“I’m going this way,” she repeats. “You’re going that way.”
And I can see down at the bottom of the road home: my home, now. Where Michael and all of our friends are waiting.
“Oh,” I say.
And I wake up.
(My subconscious is never subtle, you know?)
Recently I had a weird series of dreams. My husband leaves for work about two hours before I need to get up to get ready for my job. So most weekday mornings I wake up at least partially while he’s getting ready. So I may mumble something to him and roll back over in bed, then wake up a couple of times again before my alarm goes off, each time squinting at the clock and being relieved that I have time to get a little more sleep in. This was one of those mornings. Right after Michael left, I fell back to sleep and seemed to immediately begin dreaming that our friend, Keith, was trying to help me reach an important destination and was driving me in a car belonging to another friend, Mark. We kept getting interrupted by weird things, like a golden box full of Magic: The Gathering Cards being left on the side of the road, or a couple of people who desperately needed directions somewhere, and I was getting increasingly worried we weren’t going to make it to whatever we were trying to get to.
Then someone outside was revving their car motor, and I woke up enough to squint at the clock, note that I had only been asleep, at most, 25 minutes, and fell back again. And I began dreaming not about the weird road trip, but instead about trying to finish laundry. Except the laundry room was inexplicably located inside a hollow tree in a park that was perhaps across the street from my home. It was a little unclear. I kept running back home to work on errands, then back to the park to move the laundry from one machine to another. And there was this guy who kept stopping me in the park to ask questions. I kept thinking he was trying to steal my wallet, and then being relieved that I still had it each time I got away from him.
Something woke me up again, I peered at the clock to see that I still have nearly an hour to go before the alarm went off, and rolled back over to start dreaming about helping a bunch of people I didn’t know restore a six-color web press because we needed to get news out to the world because there had been some horrible disaster, the city was half destroyed, and so forth. I had been drafted to help because I had some familiarity with the process. Some moments the group I was working with included soldiers or government agents of some sort, and other moments we were all just ordinary civilians.
Then I heard another noise outside, pried my eyes open, and saw that my alarm clock was going to go off in less than twenty minutes. And I needed to go to the bathroom, but even though I only had a few minutes left before the alarm went off, I laid back down afterward and closed my eyes. And seemed to immediately dream that I was awakened by a noise outside and I looked to see what time it was and the clock clearly said it was 6:20pm, and I had somehow slept through the entire day or possibly several days and I need to get up right now and start getting ready…
…and I did leap out of bed, because I was convinced I was very late for work, and I grabbed my watch off the charger, strapped it on my wrist, was trying to get my thoughts together… and the watch on my wrist started vibrating because it was exactly 7:30 in the morning and time to wake up. And I stood there, after tapping the snooze button, for a good 40 seconds trying to figure out what was dream and what was reality, because I swear that the watch was flashing in weird colors both a time and a date later in the week just milliseconds before it started vibrating on my wrist, and I was standing there wearing the watch and its face was just changing to 7:31, so the jumping up and grabbing the watch had been real while also being part of the dream.
And while my watch has a lot of customizable faces, none of them look anything like the flashing “OMG, you’re late!” watch face which I could still close my mind and see in memory as if I had just been looking at it.
I don’t understand my brain. I mean, sometimes I am able to tell that a particular dream is just anxiety manifesting because of things going on in real life. And occasionally I recognize individual elements in a dream as probably being inspired by this specific thing that happened to us recently. But mostly they are just weird mishmashes of things that make no sense outside of a dream. So sometimes I think it is a pretty amazing that we manage to communicate and have conversations and such where we seem to understand each other.
Even more amazing that we can read some fiction that someone else has written and get caught up with it to the point that we imagine the events of the story, become invested deeply enough to care about what happens to the imaginary people, and even get into long arguments with other people about whether these imaginary people in an imaginary setting having imaginary adventures were portrayed realistically. Like the time back in high school where one friend angrily asserted, “Come on! A real dragon would never behave that way!” and another starting laughing so hard, he fell off his chair.
In conclusion: brains are weird. Not just mine.
There is a bit of a panic. And because this is a dream, even though just a minute before the bus may have been sitting at a bus stop I recognize somewhere in Seattle, now we’re on a long, winding road going down an unfamiliar mountain.