Whose novel is it anyway? – The Irish Times
It can happen like this:
You think of them when you’re apart, but you’re not in love.
You worry about their behavior when you’re not watching, you worry about them in your absence, but they’re not your wayward children.
Sometimes you fall in love with them – just a little. Sometimes you feel responsible for their actions, like you birthed and raised them and the world will judge you on their behavior.
It’s understandable. You spend the day locked up in each other’s company. It’s intense, all of it together. Over long periods of time, when the only voices you hear, the only people you talk to, are figments of your imagination, it’s no wonder the lines between fact and fiction begin to blur.
Some writers invest so much in their characters that they seem to live their own lives. In her life of Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin speaks of his creations as “so finely precise that he seems to be watching something unfold before his eyes as he writes”. A Victorian colleague told me that Dickens would do everything possible to avoid meeting his fictional characters on the street. It is an apocryphal tale, but believable.
In a study published in 2020, researchers from Durham University’s Writers’ Inner Voices project interviewed 181 professional writers; 63% of respondents said they heard their characters’ voices, and 61% said characters who “acted independently”, with some “exhibiting an atypical degree of independence and autonomy”. Nearly a third engaged in a dialogue with their own creations, while 20% said they felt a character occupying the same physical space as them.
It may sound like psychopathology, but for many authors it’s just part of the process. I know my characters aren’t real in a physical, tangible sense, but I to believe in them – and like feeding the cat or watering the plants, I fear leaving them unattended for too long.
Well-drawn characters feel fleshed out enough to pop off the page because, as readers, we fill in their gaps with our own experiences. To write, we must turn this performance on its head, the act of a contortionist tending towards suspension of disbelief while maintaining direct contact with credibility. Each main character brings a set of indirect triumphs, sulks and heartaches to endure, another layer of method writing to traverse. Does it hurt? Sometimes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. After all, if a writer doesn’t invest deeply in their characters, why should a reader?
Writing fiction requires the stamina of a professional caregiver and the emotional investment of an adoptive parent. We need to create, nurture and let go. Even when I think I’m holding a character at arm’s length, the emotional closeness can surprise me. Once, I took great pleasure in writing the scene killing the sidekick of a protagonist: rereading it later, I burst into tears of guilt. One narrator had such deep sensory experiences of place and idiosyncrasies of voice that I had a hard time letting go of them once the book was finished.
As the Durham study notes, “more than a third of writers said they felt their characters’ voices after they finished working on the story in which they appeared…In a few cases…characters persisted at a such that they affected or interfered with the writer’s voice. new projects.’ Some voices just don’t want to be silenced.
Writers can be haunted by their creations, visited by them in dreams, penetrated by them like spiritual vessels. We walk with them, see and taste the world like them, channel their words and feelings. We like to think of characters as props in our imaginative theaters, but we are often manipulated by them like puppets. Not only can a strong character speak and respond, but they can also misbehave. They could derail the plot, show themselves where they shouldn’t be, argue against a point they were supposed to agree with, or drastically alter their appearance.
What happens when a character decides to rebel? in my novel Eden I decided to experiment how far the autonomy of a fictional character could take him. My role model is one of Ernest Hemingway’s strongest women, Catherine Bourne, the antagonist of his posthumous publication The Garden of Eden.
Catherine is desirable and quick-witted, piquant and clumsy. When she poses too great a challenge to her husband, she is closed, making way for a docile replacement. Hemingway struggled with The Garden of Eden, producing a large, sprawling mass of manuscripts, very little of which remains in the published version. He put the book away several times, returning to it in bursts between other projects. Did he wonder what Catherine was doing while he wasn’t looking? Having created such a willful character, could he really expect her to sit on the sidelines, waiting for him to return?
No. In my treatment, Catherine becomes increasingly self-aware, developing an alarming level of autonomy. Testing the limits of her world, she realizes, like the disillusioned prisoner freed from Plato’s cave, that she lives in a fiction. While Hemingway wedges the book that contains it, dealing with Across the river and in the trees Where The old Man and the SeaCatherine continues to grow and develop, to question and challenge herself.
Noticing Hemingway’s negligence, she visits him in the night, a succubus, forcing him to be careful. When he picks up the book, she influences his creative decisions; when thwarted, she acts out, playing on her bad memories and fears. As Hemingway’s vitality and grip on reality diminishes, Catherine’s power increases. When Hemingway dies, The Garden of Eden is unfinished and Catherine’s fate is in the hands of her publishers. Where is it?
Can our creations continue without us? What if they wrote their own endings? Writers should be wary of downing tools: who knows what our creations are doing when we’re not looking?
Eden by Sonia Overall is published by Weatherglass Books