Sunday, April 17, 2011
"A life of their own"
My off-the-cuff reply was, "Yes, characters do seem to 'take on a life of their own,' but that phrase is sentimental and overplays the role of inspiration and loss of control in the writing of fiction. Personally, I always feel that I'm in control of my characters. But I also feel that they are manifestations of the self (that is, the author) that draw from parts of the personality (that is, our own) that we don't ordinarily have direct access to, which must be dug for with great effort, and generally are only uncovered in a state of deep concentration. The process of creating a character is a process of assembling emotions, memories, hypotheses, and the like, until they form a pleasing shape. And the more material one assembles, the more dots there are to connect, the more detailed a picture emerges.
"That isn't to say a character can be anything and all things--it's more like fractals, details concealed inside details. You might think of this process as being like formal limitation in poetry--instead of being able to look anywhere, we limit ourselves to those personalities possible within a set of initial parameters. And it is only inside these limitations that we're able to feel that we really know something. If the plot demands that our protagonist is going to be a fifty-year-old woman with three grown children, a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, an abiding love for the string quartets of Shostakovich, and, back in her past, a youthful stint as a game show host, then we already have somebody in mind. YOU have somebody in mind, right now. This woman opens her mouth and speaks: I am certain that you know what her voice sounds like. Because human beings are made to make broad judgements about people based upon small collections of data, and predict their future behavior according to those data.
"So this thing about characters taking over the story is, ultimately, silly nonsense. (Nabokov, for one, hated the notion.) But it is a pleasure for the writer, and one hopes the reader, to experience the illusion of same."