It occurs to me that I might be revealing more about myself than I had intended. And in doing so I have also demonstrated something about how I create a fictional character. I don’t describe or define so much as provide bits of raw material from which the reader can build a “person.” The person I think I am “building” may be nothing like the person the reader creates in her own mind as she reads. Just as the person you are building from this blog may be nothing at all like me.
Interviewers of novelists often ask – not of me; I’ve never been interviewed – how did you create this character? If the time should come when I am interviewed and this question is put to me, I will smile and think to myself, If you knew anything about writers and writing you would know what a lazy, uninformed question that is. What I will say aloud is: The best characters are not created. They simply exist. They present themselves to me fully formed, like a stranger walking through a door. I look up and there they are. I don’t know them immediately; all I have is a first impression of a real person – but then that can say a lot. And just like real people a character can fool me. Sometimes it’s my fault for misunderstanding; sometimes they are scamming me.
An informed interviewer would already know that the role of the writer as Creator usually depends on whether the novel is plot-driven or character-driven.
When the story is plot-driven – as most genre fiction is; a murder mystery is a good example – the writer may need certain characters to say, do, or even be something specific in order for the plot to play itself out to a specific conclusion, which involves, among other things, leaving clues, providing red herrings and, ultimately, solving the crime. In this case, the interviewer’s question may be valid, even for the main protagonist. Which is in no way a criticism. I enjoy (good) genre fiction.
On the other hand, in a character-driven novel, the protagonist is often given free rein. As a Writer this makes things interesting because, just like the future reader, I am curious to find out where s/he is going to take me.
In the aforementioned dairy novel, I have two secondary characters, middle aged women. Y is somewhat liberated for the day – the time is 1942 – and pulls C, a banker’s wife, to frolic in the surf. Afterward, C is exhilarated but embarrassed over her childish public display. Y assures her this kind of joy is wasted on children, who have no appreciation for such moments. “We are just the right age,” she says.
In that moment, with those words, I, the Writer “creating” this scene, found myself in tears. She’s dying! I knew it with such a certainty and intensity that it was as if Y were one of my closest friends, as if she had just shared this horrifying prognosis. Note: I did not assign this to her; I had no idea it was coming! She told me. I created the scene, yes, to show a light-hearted side to C, as part of her character development. But I did not create this factor of Y’s life; she revealed it to me. And I was truly shocked. And yet, it played perfectly into the plot, explaining things I’d already written, and also setting the stage beautifully for events I did not even imagine at the time.
My stories tend to be character-driven. What this means, in terms of my process, is that my protagonists appear not as a result of planning out the plot so much as making an appearance. Not in the novel. In my head.
Caitlin, of the short story also titled Current Events, popped up in my writerly mind as fully formed as a real, live human being, and like a real live human being she came with complexities and baggage and secrets which were no more evident to me in that moment than if she were a stranger I had exchanged a few words with at a party. I suspected she was leaving her husband, but not why. Depending on my first impression of her, I might just as easily have had sympathy for what she’d been through and respected her for her decision, or disliked her for the way she looked, or for some remark she made, or for no reason at all. Just like a real person, she might have proven herself later to be exactly what she seemed, or I might have been fooled by that first impression. Temporarily, at least. Because slowly, over time, I do come to know their secrets. And they do not necessarily come out of the plot.
In such novels there is more depth of the personality, there is a development of the protagonist’s character over the course of the novel, and plot serves character rather than vice versa. This is usually what separates a literary work from genre fiction. Though I am not a literary snob; I will read anything – well, I do draw the line at Danielle Steele. Of course this is a crass generalization. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, however, they often are. And that is basically what continues to give genre fiction a bad rep. Well, that and bad writing. And it doesn't have anything to do with how successful the author is. Just read something by Robert Parker sometimes. No don't.
A Wannabe tries too hard; thinks he must “create.” In other words he attempts to be Master, to keep control at all times.
I have had experiences where I have written and rewritten and rewritten again to try to control a character, to get him to do something because I need him to go where I need the plot to go. But the only way to get him there is to make him do something out of character, and he resists. The writing becomes work; I struggle with it. And maybe end up writing in a loop, where the dialogue or the action keep bringing the narrative back to the same point. Or else, he takes me off in another direction entirely when I’m not paying attention – giving me material that I cannot use. And it’s a good thing he does. Because that illusion of control in a writer is the recipe for the cardboard, the cliche, the archetype.
The Writer lets go, and channels something from deep inside. And I believe this is what separates a Writer from a Wannabe – the frequence of such moments as these, the moments when the character takes over and the Writer is no more than a vessel of communication.
Which is not to say Wannabes do not get published and make millions. Aye, there’s the rub.