Characters and their sum. These are what bring us to fiction. Whether we’re looking for individual, compelling characters or a summation of humanity, the whole person is what draws us ever back to stories and storytellers. The best plots in the world can’t do that.
I’ve been going through a lot of turmoil with this final book in the trilogy. I came to the conclusion some months back that the first of the three books is worth salvaging but the others likely aren’t. At most, they may one day be rough 300+ page outlines largely constituted of rodent’s cage liner. More likely, the pages already written will be a road map for what not to do. There are lots of things that contributed to the decision to let these darlings die, but first and foremost was my disenchantment with the characters.
I’ve killed their souls, it seems. I’ve deflated them until they could do little more than flail as the polyethylene men set up on blowers at the dealership entrance. They cannot do because they hardly are, and so the characters died and then so too did their influence on plots that largely rotate around them, colliding only on occasion to draw them into some position of importance.
(I know that I could fix these things post first draft and that may still happen, but I am yet a young writer of long form fiction and this blog relates things as they come to my head, partially formed. Tomorrow could be altogether different.)
I found as the process continued that a sense of my self-worth was tied up in these people that I’d been inadvertently making two dimensional. That’s a dangerous prospect, let me assure you, but recognizing it is necessary and it’s brought me around to realize something else.
The writer’s soul is intrinsically bound up in his/her characters. When the characters suffer (in the sense of the fullness of character rather than in-text struggles) or fall flat, so too does the writer. This may not always be true of the writer’s own perception of self, but from the outsider looking in, the writer of flat characters is hardly a whole person.
The process of writing compelling characters makes me care about the writer in particular. It tells me of their empathy and intuition, of their experiences and their determination. When I read full characters in a work by an unfamiliar author, it almost feels as though the writer becomes real right along with the story. About a month ago, I was blazing through Ken Liu’s much anticipated translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and I was struck by how little I knew of the man, the conditions of the book’s genesis, the debt to Chinese literature owed by the product in my hand, yet none of this kept Cixin from becoming a real person in my mind, thousands upon thousands of miles away, making decisions for these people that have only just gotten to us now over time and space.
Until just recently, Cixin Liu did not exist in my experience. Now, despite the relative paucity of my knowledge of the man, he is more real to me than most celebrities, politicians, historical figures, etc, all by virtue of the people he created for me. His reality, in the sense of my subjective reality which now must include him, is something difficult to fathom. I cannot say why he seems to be firmer around the edges than so many other people whom I’ve likewise never met, but he is. He matters to me now.
I had a similar sense this morning when I heard that after 55 years, Harper Lee would be releasing her second novel. To Kill a Mockingbird has long been one of my favorite novels and Atticus and Scout among my favorite characters. It is the rare novel for me that actually gets better every time, as does Gregory Peck’s masterful Atticus. There was this immediate feeling as though Lee was suddenly real to me once more as she hasn’t been since last I read the book a couple of years back, as though the very prospect of her craft, her characters, made her a person for me once more.
This is what we do when we create people, both in literature and by biology. We seem to become real in some ineffable way that seems only to have been missing in retrospect. It’s really quite marvellous and, for me at least, it’s a goal worth suffering towards.