In a June 4, 2015, “By the Book” interview for the New York Times, Stephen King commented that Misery is one of his favorite books to have written because Annie Wilkes (the crazed fan who keeps her favorite writer prisoner in her home) was such a fun character to write about. Wilkes, King says, “took on a life of her own.”
When creative folk say this, it can strike us as a bit disingenuous, a sly distancing from the work. After all, the writer willingly typed every word, unless of course a demented nurse was standing nearby with an ax. What you mean, we want to say, is that even you were surprised by ideas you had for the character, right? These characters are not people. They have no life of their own.
It’s a bit uncomfortable to relinquish the idea of the monolithic Author, a single source from which art flows and to which we can return for divining its meaning, assigning blame for its consequences, and charting the trajectory of its cultural arcs—from blockbuster movies to fan fiction, whether we’re talking Stephen King or Jane Austen. We don’t believe in muses. We eschew anonymity. If you are a writer, are these or are they not your words? Your characters?
Well, yes and no. Take my own experience. I have a close friend, an excellent writer, with whom I’ve been writing an ongoing, collaborative storyline for 17 years. For the better part of two decades, we’ve been writing about the same characters, and when you spend that much time with someone—fictional or not—you get to know that person intimately. One of my characters, a teenage girl named Ashley, expresses love through violence and achingly seeks validation despite a harsh, brittle exterior. She is aggressive one moment, crumbling the next. She’s complicated. And she’s nothing like me, even were I a teenage girl (which I’m assuredly not).
Yet, I know her so well at this point that I can write what she does in any given situation without thought—not because I figure it out from a craft perspective, juggling plot and characterization and verisimilitude, but because I know her. Like any friend I’ve had for this long, I instinctively realize how she’ll speak, think, feel, and act. So when I approach her, I’m not “writing” her in the same sense as with new characters. She—a fictional construct, a set of psychologically-driven mechanisms, habits, reactions, and potentialities established into patterns over time—takes actions, and I narrate them.
In this sense, she has a life of her own.
Orson Scott Card, in his wonderful book Characters and Viewpoint, writes: “By the time they finish your story, readers want to know your characters better than any human being ever knows any other human being. That’s part of what fiction is for—to give a better understanding of human nature and human behavior than anyone can ever get in life.”
If this is true—and I suspect that it is—then what ethical responsibilities inhere within the role of the writer? One of literature’s great and enduring benefits is its capacity to offer perspectives outside our own, that as readers we witness, and to a degree experience, what it means to be the Other. This shared perspective is a primary driver for empathetic engagement and for realizing that lives, outlooks, and worlds exist outside our own, with all the ensuing implications for peace and open communication. Card suggests that fiction does not merely emulate our real-life ability to understand human nature and behavior, but exceeds it.
Fully-realized characters, those so wholly developed that they take on “lives of their own,” do more than create an effective, truthful fiction. They change us. In doing so, they change the world.
As writers, how do we accomplish this when all too often we feel cruelly bound by our own knowledge of the craft, our writing techniques, our storytelling abilities? We do not always have 17 years to get to know a character.
We can be aware of the process, for one thing; we can know it is ineffable and effervescent, different for me than for you. We can leave ourselves open to being surprised by the very characters we attempt to direct. We can avoid didacticism and preconceived notions of where a story “should” go or how characters “need” to act. Despite this slippery nature, we can learn from master writers like King and Card how to develop rounded characters. We can expect a messy, fluidly changing relationship with our main characters, and by the time we reach the end of their story, we may find that we weren’t writing about them at all back at the start of the novel but rather someone we mistook for them.
And then we revise the beginning chapters, letting them speak and act as we now know they would in this situation. This changes other facets of the story, which now must be adjusted, and the cycle goes on until all feels right and true to the world and people that you have created.
Or discovered. Perhaps, after all, they lived there quite happily, or in misery, long before you met them.