Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Like A Double Shadow

Often you hear writers talk about their characters as if they exist. I remember reading an interview with Rex Stout late in life, when the interviewer asked him how Nero Wolfe was doing, and Rex Stout answered with perfect gravity that Wolfe was doing fine. He’d just finished reading such and such a book and he was considering such and such topics.

At these moments, I, and perhaps others – who knows? Who talks about such scary subjects out loud? – draw in a sharp breath and think “I cannot have heard that right.” Or “he was joking.” Or “Characters don’t exist.”

It is only partly disbelief. The other part is self-reassurance.

Are the authors joking? Probably. At least partly. But the jokes have the bravado of a man walking past a graveyard. It is in this way not dissimilar to the humor of cops, or morticians or even doctors. It is the non-scary stuff with which we paper over the abyss of fear.

And right now you’re wondering what sort of authors I know and talk to. More, if you’re a writer, you’re saying “but I was never–” It’s possible you were never tempted, never confused, never worried about the reality of your characters. There is a broad swath of writers who don’t write that way. They start with the plot, then populate it. However, if you listen to them, even they can sound a little unsure. I’ve heard one such writer say “I start with the plot, then I audition characters for it. If they don’t behave I fire them and get new ones in.”

Audition, behave, fire... are not things one applies to non-existent beings.

Yeah, I see you shaking your heads and saying “you’re taking things too literally Sarah.”

Perhaps I am, at least in some instances. But both from myself and from those writers I talk to closely and often, I can tell there is something else at work.

Sure, I know writers who create their characters with a list of attributes: name, name of mother, name of father, favorite color, favorite childhood memory, etc. But I also know to fool the reader with your shadow play – to make them care about these scraps of imagination – you must at some point forget that you’re merely dreaming. You must believe first, so you can convince others. You must draw these characters only partly from your conscious, but partly from your subconscious, so that you pause in the middle of writing and go “where did that come from?” or “What is there that she’s not telling me?” And the best characters acquire a motive power of their own and their self-revelation is a revelation to you as well and often leaves you stunned. Or sometimes it’s a piece of a puzzle that makes all the preceding action clear. (For instance, in the fifth book of the musketeer mysteries, I finally understood how Athos had got so self-punishing, over a memory of childhood, to which he attaches no particular importance.)

Now I must interject, as a caveat, that there are perfectly good books where the characters are either archetypes or never come to life for the reader – and possibly for the author, either. These are generally speaking either action books or big idea books. They just tend not to be the type of books I write – a division as marked as that between pantsers and plotters is the division between those who find their point of entry into a novel through a person, and those who find it through an idea – where even the big idea needs a big character to shoulder it or be crushed by it.

So, do characters exist? Do they have an independent existence from us?

No. And yes. No, of course they don’t exist outside the writer’s head. Not really. I mean, they might exist, sort of, if you are the sort of writer who uses bits and pieces of his friends (I’m not) or the sort that might have picked a gesture, a character trait, a snatch of conversation from observing a total stranger in a public place, (guilty.) They exist in the same sense as Botticelli’s Venus existed, as a transformed, idealized, glorious version of what was probably a mundane and every day woman.

And yet, Botticelli’s Venus is there upon the canvas, fixing the world with her innocent and knowing gaze for centuries now. In the same way, your characters do exist. If you’ve done your job properly, when the readers close the book, they can imagine what the character did in the next day, in the next year. They can see the character getting up from the chair, dusting his clothes, and... living, day to day. Because you’ve made him or her that alive, that exactingly deep and to an extent (not too much of an extent. You do that, and you end up with Kit Marlowe’s plays, where you’re never sure whom to root for, because his heros are villainous and his villains heroic, in just about equal measure) contradictory and complex.

While you’re working with them – while you’re creating the book in which they are – you have to consider them real, self willed, capable of disobeying you. You have to be able to argue with them (when we were first married, I used to tell my husband “tough day. Personality conflicts at the office and I work alone” – it took years for him to understand what I mean.)

What we are paid for, as writers, is to go a little insane on purpose. We take the semi-conscious half-dreaming state most people engage in, and make it at least somewhat rational and detailed enough for other people to read. We are, in that sense, merchants of dreams.

But there’s a danger there, as well as a lure. And there’s a precipice on the other side. It’s all too easy to convince yourself that the characters (and the world for that matter) exist. It’s all to easy to step into that dream-world and let go, or worse, to keep a foot in each world. Your writing might become more intensely believable, then, for a while, but eventually it will hurt you. No one, not even the most rabid fans, want to know what your character had for breakfast for an entire year. No one, not even the most rabid fans are interested in a character whose life is as formless and implausible (reality doesn’t have to be plausible. Fiction does) as their own.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: writers are people who create an illusion of order out of the chaos of reality.

So, what am I saying? That you must drive yourself just crazy enough you think these people in your head are real, but just sane enough to control them and the narrative, when absolutely needed? Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. Come on. It’s no worse than the simultaneous beliefs that your work is the worst cr*p ever to dirty paper on one side, and the most brilliant thing ever written. And you know darn well that these beliefs must be managed at once, so we have the courage to send things out and the detachment to deal with rejection and rewrite.

I believe in a less rational age, we might as well have been shamans and seers, channeling the “gods”. If you read the later Greek playwrights you sort of get a sense of the twin disease of the writer who has come to believe in his own work: First, no dead character can stay dead, particularly those who died young or unfairly (see Iphigenia in Tauris for an example.) They were all miraculously healed/hidden/restored by some god or supernatural being, and come back for more adventures. Second, we eventually descend into the minutia of what the characters like to have for breakfast and exactly HOW fuzzy their slippers are. Now I think about it, daytime soaps – where I suspect writers find themselves writing characters they, themselves, grew up with more often than not – acquire the same level of flaws.

When I was writing my third Shakespeare book, in which the ghost of Kit Marlowe was a prominent character, I walked to the elementary school to take the boys to class. On the way back – we lived up in the mountains then – through a fog as thick and white as curdled milk, I perceived a figure walking the other way. As he got near – for just a few seconds – I was amazed to see a young man with reddish hair in full Elizabethan garb, with a sword strapped on his waist and a cape curling behind him. He looked like Marlowe’s portrait in less formal attire. He walked past me and was gone, his steps vanishing in the fog.

I choose to believe he was one of the vast troupe of medieval recreators living in that small mountain town. I take as proof of this the fact that I’ve never before or since crossed paths with a character. The fact that I’d imagined Marlowe in such detail that I’m willing to consider I MIGHT have self-hypnotized into a vision of him is, I think, what makes that book come alive.

I did not turn, to establish the reality or not of my “vision.” I let Marlowe walk on past, into the fog and out of my life once that book was done.

So – how do you cope with the need to go “a little bit crazy?” How do you let go of your darlings when they’re so real you can tell what type of razor they prefer or that they’re upset that morning because the cat hacked up on their beds? How do you make the illusion enticing enough for others, and yet tear yourself away enough to shape it and – eventually – to walk away?


C Kelsey said...

My characters are the greatest characters to ever char an acter... It's my work that is crap. :-P

When it's time for the characters to be left, I just think nasty thoughts at them. Reminding them of just how not nice I can be to them. :D

Brendan said...

If you read the later Greek playwrights you sort of get a sense of the twin disease of the writer who has come to believe in his own work: First, no dead character can stay dead, particularly those who died young or unfairly (see Iphigenia in Tauris for an example.) They were all miraculously healed/hidden/restored by some god or supernatural being, and come back for more adventures.

I couldn't help but wonder if this was a case of Sherlockitis. The authors wanted to kill of their characters but the public kept on insisting on more Holmes(or Iphigenia as the case may be.)

MataPam said...

The things I do to my characters? All I have to do is loosen my grip and they scramble to escape.

It really is a strange thought process. I don't think it's insanity, though. I think it's a different way to use the dream process. It's the normal memory/imagination/analysis/curiousity/organizing and explanitory machinery we evolved with, and we've discovered a new use for it. Sort of like realizing that a forefoot makes a dandy grabber and manipulator.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lovely post, Sarah.

My characters are so real to me that if a book doesn't sell, I fee like I've let them down, after all they've suffered through. Now no one will read how their lives end up!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I doubt your work is crap. And even if it is, sometimes it needs a little more work... Or a lot more work. Buck up. It took me 9 years from writing my first story to actually selling the first story, then three years more to a story that didn't kill magazines/editors and actually saw the light of day.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually, that was sort of a an important example, because they DID believe these people/gods had existence separate from them and that their playwrights were either channeling the very distant past or the voice of the gods. So it wasn't, you might say, something popular opinion could influence. As such.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ah, Pam, I like your intimation that we're evolutionarilly superior. As I said I've been trying to figure out how this set of genes for er... "Making up crazy sh*t" ever made the Darwinian cut, and I've come to the conclusion the only reason for it is that we were viewed as shammans of some sort and held in religious awe (as well as being entertaining.) What always weirds me out is how "normal" people can't do this as easy as breathing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yeah, I know that feeling too. I'm not saying I'm always good at keeping in mind it's an illusion. When I was dying in the hospital, (yeah, I survived, but according to the doctors, I WAS dying) fourteen years ago, all I could think was that now my worlds would die with me. I felt very guilty about it, since some had been patiently waiting for years to be written.

MataPam said...

Yeah, what's wrong with normal people?

Oh, wait. They can get quite inventive about where they were when the wife called the office, or what happened to their home work. They just haven't taken up creation as a lifestyle.;)

And my characters are so independent they don't care if they get published. Or perhaps that's a coping mechanism of mine that slopped over.

C Kelsey said...


At least one of my characters doesn't want me to get her published. Y'see, one of the follow on stories starts with her getting almost a thousand facebook friend requests when some "outs" her on national news. The conversation with the parents should be funny as heck (to me at least). "Yeah mom, I'm a werelion..." :-P

Brendan said...

Reading this made me think of Douglas Adams and his spiel on really getting hold of the reality behind characters.

Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which, while it includes the truth and, of course, nothing but the truth, falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects.

And the reasons for this are obvious. Editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance.

Like this for instance. "Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks and then all the rest of his clothes one by one and left them in a neatly crumpled heap on the floor. He put on his pyjamas, the blue ones with the stripe. He
washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again and went to bed. He read for fifteen minutes, spending the first ten minutes of that trying to work out where in the book he had got to the previous night, then he turned out the light and within a minute or so more was asleep.

"It was dark. He lay on his left side for a good hour.

"After that he moved restlessly in his sleep for a moment and then turned over to sleep on his right side. Another hour after this his eyes flickered briefly and he slightly scratched his nose, though there was still a good twenty minutes to go before he turned back on to his left side. And so he whiled the night away, sleeping.

"At four he got up and went to the lavatory again. He opened the door to the lavatory ..." and so on.

It's guff. It doesn't advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn't actually get you anywhere. You don't, in short, want to know.

For the full text see Chapetr 25 of "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish"

While this is all a bit of fun, I don't think he would have even started telling the joke if Arthur wasn't real enough for him to imagine this really happening.

Stephen Simmons said...

I realized that the character in my SF series had become fully "real" when she fell in love.

I didn't do it. I had a vague idea that I would probably need to build in a love-interest in the second book, but no actual plans whatsoever on the subject. (she ends the first book at age 18, so she had plenty of time, after all ...) But I started writing a chapter where she's letting some friends (and the readers) in on the general shape of some of her downstream plans, for the purpose of recruiting their assistance ... and in the second paragraph of the chapter, completely without any input from me, her heart skipped a beat as one of the guys answered the door with his shirt off.

I can't fully "walk away" from her, because it's a series. But I started acting (community theater) when I was ten -- so I have some experience at playing a role, bringing it to life ... and then wiping off the greasepaint and putting the costume back on the rack.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


oh,I have a few that want me to live for them even though they are UNpublishable.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You got it exactly, that point of half-reality one reaches for, and which plays havoc with sanity when one reaches it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


yes exactly. They do things that surprise you. Have I mentioned the violin? I had no idea Kit played the violin. And Tom's father asking him "did you eat anyone?" terrified me because it was SO weird and I'd never thought of it.

Chris McMahon said...

I do often start with an idea, particularly for SF. But I think its a fallacy you can divorce action does from character - good action requires good characterisation. My ideas for actions scenes revolve around that particular person doing that, so it still revolves around character.

Francis Turner said...

This seems somewhat apropos -