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.
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?