Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A life of their own"

I got a question from a grad student yesterday regarding a paper he's writing, and I thought my answer to him would make a good blog post.  So here you go.  The question (thanks, Alex): "Writers (and I've heard this from poets, too, who are inhabiting an historical voice) claim that characters 'take on a life on their own' and act autonously, despite their ontological tether to the author himself.  The character kind of becomes an 'other.'  What's your experience of creating characters like?  Do you feel this doubleness as actor/observer?"

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."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whenever my writing professors talked about sitting back and "watching" their characters create the story, I thought about what John Cheever told The Paris Review:

"The legend that characters run away from their authors—taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president—implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd. Of course, any estimable exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness—the surprising turns, the response to light and darkness—of any living thing. But the idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible."
http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3667/the-art-of-fiction-no-62-john-cheever

Chris said...

Man, how big are your cuffs?

5 Red Pandas said...

Characters taking over a story smacks of a Twilight Zone episode. All you need to do is add a ventriloquist's dummy to the mix and you're in creep city!

The feeling that a story is writing itself or the characters have taken over just means that you've managed to surprise yourself.

Hope said...

Fractals!
I don't see or hear that word nearly enough.
Thanks.

jon said...

What's surprising to me is when a character comes to life. I never start a story unless the protagonist is fully alive to me, talking in my head. But I never know who of all the other characters in the story will engage my imagination sufficiently to leap to life. And when they do it is suprising. Control is all about making the story go where I want it. But within that limit I experience surprises, and sometimes characters can force a story to change, if not in its basic outcome,at least in the way it gets there. I don't lay it all out in great detail in advance. I definitely write from voices i hear in my head.

Dylan Hicks said...

Great answer to your student's intelligent question. My main objection to the notion of a writer losing agency during creation is that it seems to suggest that thought in general is considerably more predictable, circumscribed, and mapped out than any of us experience it to be. Few would say, "Yesterday I took an eight-mile walk (or sat quietly in a room, or what have you), and it was the damnedest thing: despite having made an outline of what I intended to think about, I found that my thoughts very soon wandered into unexpected and sometimes interesting places, almost as if I didn't have full control over my own thoughts."

I guess this gets into philosophical questions about to what extent the mind is an other.

Alicia said...

When ever I hear this discussion, I always say read "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight".

Kevin Spaide said...

Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds has a funny take on this. One of the characters in it is an author whose characters manage to escape his control. Then they drug him and keep him in deep sleep so they can do whatever they want while he's out. A bit of an extreme case perhaps...