Writing Motivation and Inspiration: Three cheers for our characters

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Let’s have fun today thinking about the difference between real people and the people we create for our fiction, our characters.

I’ve often pondered the nature of the reality of fictional characters because we so often relate to them as if they’re real human beings. Mention any number of characters whose stories I’ve read (or followed on the screen) and they will spring instantly to mind, very much in the same way as Auntie Joan will emerge from the shadows of memory with the prominent mole on her chin, and her odd habit of spelling out entire sentences, letter by letter.

Hannibal Lecter. David Copperfield. Ebeneezer Scrooge. Isabel Archer. Bilbo Baggins…

See what I mean? You remember characters from the pages of a book as vividly, often, as you remember the real McCoy, together with the emotions they inspired in you, the tears you’ve shed for them (remember Philip Rhayader, the tragic hero of Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose), the anxiety you’ve felt on their behalf, the sense of triumph that their success has engendered in you.

So there’s no denying the fact that literary creations can and do inspire in readers an undeniably real experience.

You could also argue that fictional characters really do exist from the moment a writer conceives of them. No, of course they don’t have a physical body – but they do appear to possess an intellectual and emotional existence within the bounds of their story. (And how much more real do they become if they star in a series of stories! You don’t have to think much further than Harry Potter to be persuaded of the truth of that.)

Still not convinced? You say it’s impossible to bump into Hannibal Lecter on the street? Well, think of abstract notions: love, courage, numbers or democracy. Do any of them enjoy any kind of physical existence? Obviously not. And yet we would never argue that these notions do not exist.

I’m sure I can hear a couple of you quibbling (lovely word, that) with my argument. All we know about fictional characters is what their author chooses to reveal about them. We know what they think about certain subjects. We know what they do during the moments of drama that the writer has picked out to tell their story – but not during the much longer stretches of time that make up the balance of their lives. (Of course, the writer might know a great deal more than a reader does.)

My response to this is to say that, isn’t this all we know of anyone? I encounter my neighbours intermittently. I have a glass of wine with them or spend an evening together over dinner or playing board games. I suspectthey go to the office, or the cinema, or to bed, during those vast swathes of time during which I am not in their company. I have a pretty good idea that’s the sort of thing my characters get up to when I don’t require them to be on their best (or their worst) behaviour in the story they star in.

It’s because characters are, in an important sense, real, that we, their creators can enjoy a real relationship with them.

Consider:

We pour a lot of ourselves into our characters. We shape their personalities, we identify their motivations, we explore their backstories and in doing so we form a deep understanding of and a connection with them. Is it overstepping the bounds of propriety to confess that we sometimes fall in love with them? As well as be frustrated by them, occasionally impatient with their choices, and often protective of them.

We often have conversations with them in our heads, debate their actions, and are surprised by their choices. On occasion, we have to rein them in to remind them that the story they’re in is at most a collaboration between us, and not theirs to dictate.

Our characters might have been conceived in the wombs of our imagination – but they are never completely under our control. And it’s precisely because they do enjoy some real autonomy, that they’re capable of generating an authentic response in our readers.

And for that we owe them a deep debt of gratitude, don’t you think? Please let me know in the comments below.

Happy writing

Richard

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