Sometimes when I tell people that I’m writing a novel they ask, where do you get your characters from? Is character X in your story actually person Y in your (somewhat more) real life? Did this really happen? Which character is supposed to be you? Am I in it? And so on.
So I thought I’d talk a little bit about character. As always, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m sure there are many writers who don’t do what I do at all.
First off, I want to be able to recognize the characters I read and write about. Now, I grant that this is just a personal preference; but I don’t think I would ever want to write a book that takes place on the planet Zaurus and concerns the Great War between the Alliots and the Beloggotians. The advice about writing that I have taken to heart the most is this, by Grace Paley: write about what you don’t know about what you do know.
Now this is very different from: write about what you know. That charge may be fine for non-fiction, but for a novel I feel that if I know everything about it beforehand, and I’m not discovering anything new as I go along, then there’s a good chance that the reader will also find it predictable, and that’s not interesting at all.
On the other hand, my charge is not just to write some random nonsense, a string of words put together. If I’m going to bring some kind of revelation to the reader, then what I hope for most is that in the act of writing, my conscious plan will become subverted, and the beak of my unconscious will crack through the egg of my surprised will.
An example. A while back, I was slogging through my day’s idea for my current novel, and it was really tough. But then it turned out that one of my characters was going to bed, falling sleeping in the same room as his brother, and all of a sudden, a whole flood of memories of sharing a bedroom with my brother came rushing through me: I realized that this was a whole section of my life that I had never really explored before, but something of the truth of my life. The relationship of the brothers in the novel could be revealed in that one little scene. Those night time experiences had been incredibly important to me, but I had never really looked hard at them before. All of a sudden, I began to ask: What was it like, really, to go to sleep in the same room as my brother, night after night? What was it like for my brother? What was the importance of that relationship at night? How did it form who we were? More concretely, what were the sounds, words, rituals, shadows?
Now I am not saying that my brother or I am in this novel. We’re not at all— that would be uninteresting. I’m a very boring person. That’s not the way it works. What I’m doing instead, on a primarily unconscious level, is taking different parts of relationships and pieces of my life and putting them together, like those mix and match flip flap books I had when I was a child. Do you remember them? They had five or six faces that were cut horizontally in thirds and then you could flip the separate sections so that you could create a new face with one person’s hair, another’s eyes and nose, and another’s mouth and chin. Composites. You take different truths and pieces of imagination and then mix them up in new and compelling ways.
What’s interesting about the truth in fiction or acting is that you don’t have to have the complete truth to establish the reality of a character or a scene. A drop of cream in the coffee, as Lee Strasberg once said, is enough to change the nature of the coffee. In acting, as in writing, you pour out different drops of yourself and other people which you know to be true, and then you stir and combine those aspects in new ways. In that sense, every character is unique, but every character is also one’s self. So each brother in the example above contains parts of myself and others, but where the characters truly come alive is when I put them into a situation and watch how they handle it. I rarely know beforehand what will happen, but I try to focus on what I don’t know about what I do know about the situation and the characters. That’s where the juicy part is.
So, yes, you’re all in it, and no, none of the characters are you.