Characters Taking Over

Characters Taking Over

As I learned while writing my novel Mind the Gap, it takes a lot of work to create fictional characters from scratch. They need to have distinct personalities; they need credible instincts and interactions, hopes and fears; dialogue needs to fit together, neither overstating nor understating the characters’ perceptions and emotional reality; their dreamworld should be conveyed in vivid language; some actions need to be implied and others laid out in more detail; there should be a golden thread running through the novel, pushing the plot forward and keeping readers hungry for more; everything that happens, as crazy as it may at first seem, needs to follow an internal logic that may only fall into place by the end of the work.

There came a point when my characters came alive, from Grandmother Grieve to Richard Grey, and Mother Augusta to Chloé Trahan: I heard their whispered voices, waking me up at night and inviting me to enter their dreams; I wiped away their tears in the daytime; I witnessed their struggles for survival; I was moved by their poetry and prayers; they told me what to write next and sometimes even explained that the crazy situations I was inventing weren’t at all logical! Of course, my characters remained in their world, so “logic” for them was less an abstract system of rational rules and more a sense of proportion.

It got to the point where the characters became second nature to me. There was virtually no distance between us. The dividing-line between real and imagined didn’t seem obvious either to them, or to me.

This experience has me wondering about the relationship between an author and his/her characters. How much of fiction out there (not my own) is autobiographical? How much has the author already witnessed or experienced? What is rigorously drawn from real life and what purely made up? And what happens when other authors than myself finish the last page? Are they able to “let go” of the characters and move on to other things?

Do characters invent their authors?

Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author shows characters complaining they are unreal and demanding to be fleshed out. They clamour for a more complete sense of self. In Act II, the Father says , “A character, sir, may always ask a man who he is. Because a character has really a life of his own, marked with his especial characteristics; for which reason he is always ‘somebody.’ But a man — I’m not speaking of you now — may very well be ‘nobody.’”

Which leads to the question: Does literary creation go all one way? We are used to picturing a one-way process, which depends on the author, and can be represented as:

The author takes two daughter universes — one experienced, the other imagined — and deliberately fuses them → delves into myth and metaphor to modify reality → dips into the well of memory → invents characters → maps out their roles → writes their dialogue → sets the limits of the story and serves as the final arbiter of what happens.

But what if the characters also create the author? By campaigning the way they do, my characters and Pirandello’s walk all over the author — they dictate conditions going forward. This can be represented as:

The characters reject the limits of the story, circumscribing the author’s role as arbiter → push for a greater sense of self → disrupt the process of creation, leaping all over the page → influence how they are created, by sending the author a constant stream of suggestions → claim they are capable of authentic experience and deny they dwell in an imagined daughter universe → invent the author.

And at that point, yes, characters are the ones unwilling to let the author go!

Characters can disrupt the creative process: I took this photograph on the Northwest Passage in summer, near Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

A magical-realistic dramatic comedy like Mind the Gap needs to be funny. I don’t mean comedy like creampie-in-the-face slapstick, or amusing word play that barely scratches the surface, or hardy-har-har jokes that fall flat. I mean comedy as a narrative poem with a happy ending…. A friend tells me this novel of mine is a Cinderella story.

Even so, some readers are asking: how can Mind the Gap be a comedy given that truly dramatic things happen or are implied — bad things?

It all depends on what you mean by comedy.

The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye once explained to me that the main characters in comedy end up fully integrated in society, whereas in tragedy they end up isolated from society.

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye writes of the variety of comic structures “between the extremes of irony and romance….” He then goes on to identify several phases (pp. 177-186):

  1. ironic comedy, in which the “humorous society triumphs and remains undefeated” with buffoons calling all the shots;
  2. quixotic comedy, in which “the hero does not transform a humorous society but simply escapes or runs away from it, leaving its structure as it was before”;
  3. a phase in which a new society begins to be created;
  4. a phase in which “we begin to move out of the world of experience into the ideal world of innocence and romance”; and
  5. a phase in which “we move into a world that is still more romantic, less Utopian and more Arcadian, less festive and more pensive, where the comic ending is less a matter of the way the plot turns out than of the perspective of the audience;” and
  6. the “phase of the collapse and disintegration of the comic society … the world of ghost stories, thrillers and Gothic romances, and … a kind of imaginative withdrawal” from the rest of the world.

So, if I go along with what Frye says, Mind the Gap falls short of the fifth phase, which “takes an increasingly religious cast and seems to be drawing away from human experience altogether.” Sheesh — no way I would write a novel like that! And it is nothing like the sixth phase. Instead, the novel starts off as an ironic comedy where buffoons rule, then it morphs into a quixotic comedy as the protagonist tries to escape the buffoons, then it settles into his creating a new society, while recovering his innocence and (accidentally) finding romance.

I like comedy with a certain darkness (or realism) to it, that makes readers laugh and cry at the same time, because it reveals not only a uniquely funny world, but also beauty and poetic truth. Comedy, in other words, that takes a stand.

I like comedy that makes me laugh while revealing something important about the human condition, like this gargoyle in Oxford



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