Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Characters Who Write Themselves

with 2 comments

And books that write themselves, too.   Sort of.

A couple of posts back, Cheryl commented:

>>>I must be missing something. I can see that good literature has ‘real’ characters – ones who act and talk like real people within the world of the book. I’ve read comments from a number of authors saying that their characters do or say things that their authors didn’t expect, which sounds like what you’re talking about near the end (5th paragraph from the end). I’d always put that down to some kind of exaggeration, because I’d assumed that the believability of characters was due to the skill of the author, not to the characters evolving and changing on their own.

Maybe you mean that good authors when developing their characters are able to develop them properly even when that means going contrary to the way that the author originally expected the character to develop. It seems to me (as a non-author!) that the characters don’t grow themselves (whatever the author says), but are grown through the skill of the author.  >>>>

I was sort of taken aback by this, because in all my years of giving writing workshops, sitting on conference panels, and, yes, writing, I’ve never had this sort of comment about what is really a fairly common claim among writers of fiction.

But it’s a good comment, and it addresses an issue that deserves as good an explanation as I can give it, so I’m going to try.   I’m going to try even though I’m likely to be incoherent. 

Let’s start with the contetion:  when I say characters write themselves, that they have wills of their own, I’m not simply using a metaphor.  Oh, I know that, realistically, that can’t be what’s actually happening.  It is, however, what feels as if it’s happening. 

Planning has nothing to do with it.  The worst books I’ve ever written are the ones that I not only planned–I plan all of them, in the beginning–but that have gone according to plan.  And that characteristic, that feeling that the novel has been planned and the author has stuck to that plan, is one of the hallmarks of bad fiction writing to me.  The result feels too mechanical, and the people feel false, even if they’re accurate depictions of human types.

As close as I can explain it is this:  it’s sort of like slotting yourself into a groove and letting yourself go.   You let your mind be taken over by this other person, and then you let it think. 

I  knew, when I started this, that it was going to sound like blithering.

When  I was first writing fiction as an adult–as a child, I just imitated the hell out of any writer I admired–I used to have to prime myself to make this work.  I would start out the night before, thinking of a single sentence my character might think or say, and repeat it over and over to myself until  I fell asleep.  When I woke  up, I would go straight to the typewriter (it was a typewriter then; I’m an old person) and just start typing.  Without thinking.  Without knowing, when  I started, what was going to come out.

As I got over, this process got easier, and I didn’t have to  prime the pump at sleep.  I still, however, try very hard to write stream-of-consciousness for first drafts.  I try not to think about it too much.  I try not to plan. 

Even my grand plans for the mystery don’t always work out the way I thought they would.   I’m not quite in the position of Lawrence Block, who once said that if he didn’t know who the murderer was, the reader wouldn’t either, but the fact is that the murderer often turns out to be a different person than the one I’ve “planned.”

And my first drafts are enormously long.  For some of the more recent books, they’ve gotten close to a thousand pages in WordPerfect.   My biggest problem is always cutting them, and being careful about the cut.  But in those thousand pages of draft are a great many revelations of character that never make it to the book, and that I  never suspected when I first conceived of the character.

I am not a supernaturalist.  I do not think that some outside force takes control of my mind and uses me to channel whatever.  I only know that this is how it works, and almost every other writer of fiction I’ve ever talked to has experienced something similar.  

And when I say that when I try to make the characters say or do something they don’t want to say or do, they just refuse–I mean it literally.  Or, again, I mean that that’s what it feels like.  Something just stops.  I can’t continue the day.  The prose all sounds bad.  The scene reads like something phony. 

Please note what I said before:  the fact that a character is writing himself this way does not actually mean that what comes out will be true to human experience.  I can point to hundreds of organically written characters across the broad range of fiction who are completely crap and have no relation at all to the way real people feel or think.

Still, organically written characters are perceived by the reader to be authentic, even if they’re false, and deliberately written characters are perceived by the reader to be false, even if they’re true.  And as I said before, I don’t understand why that works, I just know it does.  What’s more,  I know that  the “truth” of the narrative voice–or the multiplicity of narrative voices in a third person multiple viewpoint novel–is the single most important distinguishing fact in the quality of a work of fiction as fiction.

It’s also true that an ability to do this, and do it well, is no guarantee that a writer is insightful, compassionate or even on average decent in his orginary life.  In fact, the stories of the infantile behavior, acting out, and emotional abusiveness of some of the world’s most famous and intelligent writers is legendary.  It’s hard to understand how Faulkner could have written what he did and spent so much of his time drunk, or how Mailer could have written what he did and spent so much of his time–well, what was that, exactly?  Fighting with people.   Staging scenes.  Throwing tantrums.  And I’m not even going to go in to Truman Capote.

In my own case, I find that when I am writing from Father  Tibor’s point of view, his unwavering commitment to God, his feelings of always being in the presence of God, make perfect sense.  I understand absolutely how that works.  Then I come out of it and I’m just wandering around the house as me, and I don’t get it at all.

Unlike a lot of nonbelievers, I am not a convert to atheism.  I don’t believe because I just don’t believe.  I have no experience of believing.   I don’t know what it would feel like if I felt it myself.  I don’t actually see how it’s possible to get there from here.  And Father Tibor’s experience, and my experience of  Father Tibor, doesn’t help me.  That is something that exists in that place, in that little bubble where Father Tibor lives.  It has nothing to do with me.

Well, of course, it has something to do with me.  In some part of me must be those feelings, or a path of access to those feelings, and to those ideas.  It’s just that I have no conscious access to any of it.  When I am not “being” Father Tibor, or Sister Beata Maria, I’m unable to understand any of that on any level at all.

One of the things that strikes me about writers who do this well, too, is that the moral foundations of their works of fiction often contradict the moral foundations of their everyday lives, or at least their behavior.  Take  Jose Saramago, at the moment my favorite writer of fiction, a Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize a few years back and whose most famous book, Blindness, was out as a movie this fall.

Saramago’s novels–with the exception of the last one, which is a whole other story–are spectacular works of genius.  The moral universe he creates and makes us live in is enormously illuminating of the issues in our own lives.  His characters are more than real.  They have more substance to them than most actually existing people seem to.

In real life, however, Saramago is an old Communist and the kind of reflexive anti-American who cherishes his anti-Americanism so much, he doesn’t want to be confused with facts.  Reading the few essays of his that have been published in  English is excruciatingly painful.  He seems never to have gotten the memo that Communism is bad for people, and his hatred of the United States is the intellectual equivalent of declaring that you hate Jessica Simpson because she dyes her hair brunette.  

There was a poster on one of the discussion groups I’ve participated in who spent a lot of time talking about his writing projects, and the talking was always about planning.   He was planning not only his plots but his characters, and in such a way that no organic growth would be possible–should I make my character divorced?  should I give him a drinking problem?  do readers like characters who are trouble or feisty?  maybe my main character should be a woman?

I don’t know if there’s anybody in the entire history of fiction who has ever successfully written a novel this way.  I only know I couldn’t.  I start with something–a name, or a basic situation–I slot into the groove, and then I let it take me where it wants to go.  Often characters I expect to be villains turn out not to be, and characters I expect to be admirable turn out to be less so.  And when books don’t work, it’s because I haven’t been able to get into that kind of groove, or I’ve tried to force the development instead of letting it happen.

It occurs to me that this post has been less than helpful.   I haven’t been able to come up with an explanation, because I don’t have one.  I don’t know why this works.  I just know that it does.  And that when writers talk about it like this, they aren’t using metaphors.  They’re describing the experience as they experience it, or at least as close as they can get.

Written by janeh

October 20th, 2008 at 5:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Characters Who Write Themselves'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Characters Who Write Themselves'.

  1. You’re not blithering. This is consistent with Robert’s Long Consistent Lie Theory of the Novel. The more you understand the character, the more you’ve limited what the character might do. A good writer just can’t make the character behave inconsistently, and the novels which go according to plan are cases where you never really channeled the characters. This is why I always hear novelists complaining about obstinate characters, and not short story writers.

    It may also be why a writer of a popular series character once explained that he couldn’t write about the character any more–that it was as though the character had been telling the stories, and had just gotten up and left. For whatever reason, he couldn’t channel that character any more, so nothing he wrote rang true. That way, of course lies Reichenbach.

    None of this would affect the writer by formula, and it might not have much impact in fields where characters are beside the point. (Much of Tom Clancy, for instance–and what use would a well-rounded credible Dr. Gideon Fell be to anyone?) But does this say anything about whether and to what degree a book can or should be plotted out in advance?


    20 Oct 08 at 4:27 pm

  2. You have answered my question and clarified the process a bit, although it does seem to remain ultimately mysterious!

    I always had assumed that writers really planned their characters; worked out analytically what they would do and how they would do it, and hadn’t taken authors’ comments to the contrary as literally as it appears that they were meant.


    21 Oct 08 at 6:46 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 241 access attempts in the last 7 days.