Monday, 19 March 2012

The process of writing- characters

There is a notion often expressed by novelists (and would-be novelists) these days that what they do with characters is to create them and then 'watch what they do.' Ray Bradbury puts it like this: "First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!" There are writers who have suggested even that while they were writing their novel they wanted to write a particular scene but 'the characters wouldn't let me.'

When I came across this notion my first reaction was to dismiss it as something between New Age twaddle and the desperate attempts of writers to convince themselves they are artists (darling!) rather than craftsmen/women. Since a novel's characters have no existence outside the writer's mind (until the novel is read of course, when they acquire an existence in any reader's mind), how can they behave or react in any way except how the author decides they should behave or react? How can they 'lead' the author? Most of all, how can they take independent, autonomous decisions about their actions?

Of course this notion of characters having a life independent of their creator is a long-established one. There is an element of it even I believe in that most level-headed of novelists, Jane Austen. In her famous quotation about Emma:
"I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like"
what is interesting is her choice of the verb "take." It is as if Austen feels that Emma already exists and she is going to choose to put her in her novel. Novelists such as Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne often write about their creations as if they have an independent life and exist outside their imaginations and surely neither Fielding nor Sterne nor Austen could be declared guilty of New Age twaddle. Also none takes themselves so seriously as to create such a notion for their own aggrandizement.

It is therefore an idea that is worthy of serious consideration. What is interesting about it is of course the notion that the novelist is not entirely in control of what they write. Gustave Flaubert expresses this idea beautifully in the quote:
"C'est comme un homme qui a l'oreille juste et qui joue faux du violon; ses doigts se refusent a reproduire juste le son dont il a conscience"
("It is like a violinist whose ear is true but who plays badly; his fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.")
I find an echo in this of L P Hartley's advice that "it's better to write about things you feel than about things you know about". Both to me suggest that in their writing a novelist should tap into ideas and areas of consciousness over which they do not have complete conscious control, and that frustration arises when they cannot successfully do so.

Of course this reminds me of an idea I have explored in a previous post, that the successful writer can use the incredible power of the unconscious mind in their writing. As I said in that post, Incognito- the Secret Life of the Brain has opened my eyes to the range and power of the abilities of the unconscious brain. We like to think that the higher order mental functions are entirely under the control of our conscious minds, or to put it another way that writers know what they are doing when they write. However it seems clear that the conscious mind is often 'the last to know' when the unconscious parts of the mind have been working away at some complex and subtle problem for a considerable time and have come up with a brilliant and creative answer.

So perhaps this idea of characters who 'tell the author what to write' is simply another way of describing the functioning of the unconscious mind. As I have said in many previous posts human beings seem strongly predisposed to think in symbols. What better symbol is there for an author of the complex functioning of their own unconscious mind than a character they themselves have created. So when their characters 'speak to them' perhaps it is simply their own unconscious mind they are listening to.

1 comment:

  1. I am fascinated by the apparent separation of the 2 sides, and the fact that sometimes you appear to have no control over the unconscious, and - worse than that - your attempts to control are actually counter-productive.
    Example: trying to remember a name seems impossible if you concentrate. You have to draw back and leave your brain to do its thing without your interference, and eventually the name will pop up.
    Very interesting to extrapolate to authors and their attempts to wrestle with the autonomous characters they have birthed.