Sunday, December 04, 2005

WHERE DO "CHARACTERS" COME FROM?



Originally uploaded by Aeioux.



Recently someone asked me a question about my writing that sent me into a tailspin. It was a simple, straightforward question really, but it set off the kind of thought process that causes me to walk around my house for an hour talking to myself. (I'd prefer to walk on the local beach of course, but the arm flailing and muttering that accompanies intense thinking for me might scare the seagulls--not to mention the unsuspecting humans who just came out to walk their dogs, or to feel the spray of salt against their faces.)

Anyway, the straightforward question, the very good, legitimate question involved how I knew what a certain character felt, what I tapped into to understand that character's emotional reaction to a devastating event.

I tried to think up something in my own life that was close to what my character had experienced; and though I could have given some vague, glib answer, it would have been false. I personally knew nothing about what my character had undergone.

But as a writer, I knew everything about it, because see, I was there. And because I know that character as well--no, better, than I know myself. The only thing I can't explain is how I came by that knowledge.

Though I hadn't even written about the event in question--a fatal car crash--directly, I knew the exact bend in the road where it occurred. I knew the sounds that accompanied it, and the shattering silence that waited in its aftermath. An emptiness that would linger on the road, and in the house, and in the pit of my character's stomach for days and weeks and years to come.

So my dumb answer to the question of how I know what she felt is not a cogent response, but another question: Where did this character come from in the first place; and how did she get into my brain?

For some writers, the answer is clearly that they find their characters around them. They write about themselves or their mothers, their faithless lovers, or the kid who tormented them in fifth grade. Other writers claim to create "composites" from life.

But mostly, when I write fiction, I don't invite friends or family inside the story. I prefer to build a house, to pave the streets of a metaphorical city, and then see who shows up, whether they speed on the highway or travel back roads at a leisurely pace, and what they have to say. Then, for an hour or a couple of years, depending on the length of the piece I'm working on, I give them the run of the place.

I let them infect my dreams, and hound me with their obsessions. I learn how they take their coffee, what music triggers depressing memories, and whether they can dance or not. I walk around my house with my head in my hands listening to their voices, and then I go to the computer and spill everything I've seen and heard.

Not to get too metaphysical and creepy about it, but it's not all that different from a possession or a haunting. Once one of these so-called characters enters my house, the only way for me to be free of them is to tell their story. Exactly as they want me to tell it.

24 comments:

marja-leena said...

That's neat! How interesting to get into the mind of a writer. I must say I'm really enjoying your blog, Patry, and how you convey the little everyday events and people in such a compelling way.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

What a fantastic description of your creative process. I love how the characters possess you until you tell their story. When I wrote poetry I would suddenly have a line in my head. It came unbidden. A first line, with a torrent of words that would follow.

Swirly said...

This is a very interesting insight, and one I relate to as an artist. I recently did a painting of a very peculiar alien/girl/angel and I am simply in love with her. Every person I've talked to about her or seen her asks the same question, "Where did she come from?" and my answer is "I don't really know". But, just as you said about your characters, I know all about her, and I am imagining her in all kinds of different situations, moods, environments, etc. Because she is a fairly new creation, right now I'm letting her tell me what to do next.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

I know exactly what you mean, Patry. Sometimes I feel like I'm literally channeling another person when I write, and when that happens, I have no choice but to listen and put their words down on paper.

If I have to try too hard to create a character, it usually doesn't feel right and I end up aborting the story. You can't force words from a person who isn't there.

So I try to be ready, always, and listen closely to the ones who want to tell their stories.

MB said...

And you made a story out of even this. :-)

I'm glad to hear you describe your experience. When I write poetry or songs, I often have the experience R'sD describes, of lines, words, phrases, images "arriving." I think it might be similar to what you are describing here. When I think deeply about it, I do have a sense of some sort of taproot thing going on, like I'm tapping into something deeper inside of me or maybe even somewhere else (but it's through me). I can't explain it either. And it can't be forced, it's more like a path unfolding in front of me that only unfolds as I walk it and watch and listen. Lots of listening involved.

Vickie said...

I think you said it perfectly. The same is true for me. I don't know where some of this stuff comes from.

Vickie said...
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matt said...

patry, i must admit i take a different approach to characterization: i do not yet know if this is a weakness or strength of mine, but i cannot, at this point in my life, see writing as else but introspection. the characters i create, though they may have been suggested in myriad different ways, are always useful to me as mechanisms of self-study. thus, that is how they tend to flesh out.

thoreau said, "Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day." i think of myself primarily as a poet, regardless of the material i produce, and the characters stemming from my imagination are bound, by thoreau's idea, to me. obviously, my poems/stories do not always adhere to thoreau's words; nevertheless, that is how i create characters, that is how i characterize, that is how i write.

P. A. Moed said...

Beautifully stated, Patry. I describe them as friendly ghosts, who come for a visit, hopefully stay a while, and populate my thoughts and dreams for as long as they want. When I finish the book, I miss them.

gilemon said...
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camera shy said...

many cograts on the publication

steve said...

A wonderful post. I wish I could do the same with my characters--they too often lead me to a dead end. I don't know whether I'm missing something, or they're just telling me to stick to nonfiction. In any case, I'm glad I discovered your blog, which wouldn't have happened without Peter of slow reads.

Patry Francis said...

marja-leena: thank you. Your blog is a special resting place for me, too, a place where I can explore the colors and textures that are frequently absent in a writer's world.

r.d: that's how a poem usually comes to me, too, with one line or a couple of words and a rhythm. Sometimes I'm flooded with several such lines in a day, and feel like I could just sit and write poem after poem. Then, abruptly, it withdraws, or I remove myself from the current, and I don't get another such gift for weeks, or even years.

swirly: Love your angel alien girl. She is the perfect symbol for these mysterious creatures who visit the artist, seemingly unbidden.

sharon: I smiled when I read your comment. Sometimes writing can be such a lonely vocation, but it less so when you connect with people who
understand.

I have more to say in what has become a great discussion of the mysterioius process of creating "human beings," and other creatures, but right now I have to get ready for a "makeover party." I hope to return in a beautified state.

Anne Bauer said...

Yeah, characters are like children. At first I think they are mine all mine, then they develop minds and hearts of their own. I could continue the metaphor but it would get sappy real quick and it's late. You got me thinking -- again.

How'd the makeover party go? I haven't been to one since the last one I went to, which I left looking like a slut from the heavy makeup. :)

Buter said...

Ha! Well, it feels so good to be someone else now and then. At least, that is how I escape me.
And I believe every character in any story, even if writers say they write auto-bio, are a mixup of fiction and experiences and people around us.
Who said 'writing is deceiving the truth'?

Nice to be here. I'll be back, and thanks for visting my Blog the other day.

Kiss-kiss.

Patry Francis said...

moose: I like the image of the path that only unfolds as you walk it. That's very much how developing a character or story feels to me. Sometimes at the end of a good day's writing, I read it over, and find unexpected "intrusions" that I really can't explain.

Vickie: Thanks for another voice verifying that I'm not alone or crazy.

matt: when I write poetry, I pretty much adhere to Thoreau's injunction.
(It's a great quote, by the way, and thanks for posting it.) But fiction writing is another matter. I mean how many novels about a waitress who wants to be a writer would you want to read? I'm not sure, but I doubt Thoreau read much fiction anyway. For me, the joy of writing it, is tapping into experiences I haven't lived, but KNOW anyway. It's rising out of my paltry self and claiming a greater humanity.

Vickie: Thanks for verifying that when I'm in "crazy writer mode," I'm much less alone than I thought. I love your comments.

p.a. moed: oh my god, I know what you mean about missing your ghosts!
I had one character, probably my personal favorite among all my ghostly friends, who showed up in several short stories. Ever since she died in the last of them, things haven't been the same in my fictional world.

blog this: THank you!

steve: Non-fiction is more profitable from what I hear so if you find that is your path, it might not be a bad thing. Thanks for visiting and thanks to Peter for sending you!

anne bauer: So, so true. I used to think I had given birth to "my" children, that I could mold their personalities and all that. But it didn't take long before they disabused me of that foolishness. Loudly and clearly! Characters are very much the same sort of rebellious beings.

The makeover party was fun, but the results were a little disappointing. I didn't get a new face after all (but on a positive note, I didn't look like a hooker either!)

Buter: So happy to see you here. I enjoyed my visit to your blog the other day. Yes! It gets very tiresome being me with my endless waitress stories and my aching back. Much more fun to slip out of my life and play someone brilliant and sexy --or fiendishly diabolical for a day or a year. I used to think that actors were being disingenuous when they said that they were really extremely shy, but that entering a
character allowed them to open up. But writing is a very similar experience.

matt said...

"For me, the joy of writing it, is tapping into experiences I haven't lived, but KNOW anyway. It's rising out of my paltry self and claiming a greater humanity."

i think this is where we part ways, ideologically (also, perhaps, why i haven't written a novel yet!). to this point in my writing life, i am content to adhere to the experiences i have lived, sometimes staying (nearly) perfectly true to them, other times bending them, always taking from them something i discovered (usually long after) that connects me to that "greater humanity."

i em envious of your proclaimed writing method, as i have not yet experienced it myself. however, i am content for now to claim, right by your side, greater humanity as (at least part of) the aim of my writing.

Patry Francis said...

Matt: I hope you didn't think I was implying there was any right or wrong way to divine a character or to create art. Nor do I think you should envy anyone's method. You are clearly a talented writer, and whether you mine the self, or the world around you, or invite passing ghosts to tea, doesn't really matter. The key you quoted back from my comment are "for me". Frankly, I think it's wonderful that we don't all work in the same medium or in the same way.

In any case, thanks for your thoughtful dialogue.

matt said...

rest assured i was not implying any such creative standard. :)

"Frankly, I think it's wonderful that we don't all work in the same medium or in the same way."

i completely agree, and for what it's worth, art wouldn't be art if this weren't true. too, this is why i am content to approach things differently. many people write well, but none for exactly the same reasons, or in exactly the same way. that is art.

p.s. going back to your first survey, the dialogue between bloggers, this back-and-forth in which we are currently engaged, is another good reason for me to return!

poem on.

matt said...

"rest assured i was not implying any such creative standard."

er, that is, i was not trying to charge you with doing this...

where's them editors when you need 'em?

:)

finnegan said...

Great description of what goes on behind the haunted synapses.

I often wonder about humans, and are we all not composites of stories and events? Is creating such a leap after all?

Patry Francis said...

oh finnegan, I've missed your comet. You always make me see things in a new way.

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