Monday Writing Motivation: You are your characters
Whenever we sit down to write about characters we’ve invented or “borrowed” (I prefer to say, “stolen”) from people in what we loosely believe is the “real world”, we’re actually writing about ourselves.
There’s no escaping this conclusion. However different the characters we create might seem to be from us – we’re staid, middle-class, more or less resigned to following the path that life, somehow, has created for us, while our character is a madcap, bipolar fantasist – the fact is that we can only write, authentically, about such a character if we’re able to identify those aspects in ourselves that are a little crazy, a little demented.
Narcissism is, therefore, a necessary indulgence for writers serious about their craft. But narcissism, while of course it can be fun (who doesn’t like occasionally to gaze spellbound at her reflection?), carries also a very particular burden.
If you’re going to plunder your own psychology for the bits and pieces you need to patch a character together, then you need to take a very clear-eyed view of your psyche. In other words, you have to be truthful about yourself.
And that, people, is hard.
These rather abstruse thoughts occurred to me when I was driven to research the blog that I’ll publish next week. That research led me to F Scott Fitzgerald, and his first novel, This Side of Paradise.
He started writing the novel while he was at Princeton, submitted it to Scribners, and after two rewrites, was told the good news.
Now, I’ll talk next week about the editor at Scribners who guided the novel through its evolution from unpublishable first draft through to publication.
It is generally regarded as Fitzgerald’s autobiographical novel. The protagonist, Amory Blaine, is based closely on the author himself. And, reading it, you can’t help but be struck by how hard Fitzgerald is on the poor sap.
Take these paragraphs from early in the novel:
Now a confession will have to be made. Amory had rather a Puritan conscience. Not that he yielded to it – later in life he almost completely slew it – but at fifteen it made him consider himself a great deal worse than other boys… unscrupulousness… the desire to influence people in almost every way, even for evil… a certain coldness and lack of affection, amounting sometimes to cruelty… a shifting sense of honor… an unholy selfishness… a puzzled, furtive interest in everything concerning sex.
There was, also, a curious strain of weakness running crosswise through his make-up… a harsh phrase from the lips of an older boy (older boys usually detested him) was liable to sweep him off his poise into surly sensitiveness, or timid stupidity… he was a slave to his own moods and he felt that though he was capable of recklessness and audacity, he possessed neither courage, perseverance, nor self-respect.
Vanity, tempered with self-suspicion, if not self-knowledge, a sense of people as automatons to his will, a desire to “pass” as many boys as possible and to a vague top of the world… with this background did Amory drift into adolescence.
Harsh, hey? He dissects his character’s weaknesses quite ruthlessly. Would I be able to anatomise my own character quite as objectively as that? I’m not sure. Would you?
What I am sure about is that unless we are able to look inwards with a cold and clinical eye, we will not be as capable of creating “real” characters as we would otherwise be.
Know thyself, is one of three aphorisms carved into the stone of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is arguably the basis of all knowledge. But perhaps more importantly from a writer’s perspective, it is also the basis of all good writing.