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A Writers View: On Characters Who Seize the Reins


Could it be that we writers owe our characters a bit more respect?

Maybe so.

I’ve been noodling a bit over these made-up people who seem to take their stories into their own hands: Can they can really do that? And if so, how?

Let’s think about it.

When a writer creates a character, what she actually does is to assemble a collection of logically interacting issues and imperatives: the needs, wants, loves, hates, desires, dreams, fears, conflicts, gifts, imperfections, etc. etc. which will determine that character’s attitudes and behavior within the context of the story.

As she works with the character, internalizing the details of the unique set of drives which she has given it, the various elements she has selected begin, somehow, to interact among themselves, something like a kit model of a functioning personality. And however strong or weak or twisted that made-up personality might be, it is the behaviors arising logically from the conflicts within it that give the character individuality.

But how could that happen? By what mechanism could a fictional set of drives actually function, without the writer’s conscious direction, to generate a fictional person’s life-like reactions to fictional stimuli? Automatically, as if the character were acting on its “own” brainpower? And so driven by its “own” personality that, as many writers have observed, it can insist on behaving according to the logic of that original writer-provided set of drives no matter what different behavior the writer might want from it at a given time.

Could it be (this is the radical part) that as a writer works with it, that kit-model personality takes root and functions realistically, for the time of the writing, within the writer’s own subconscious?

Well, how does the subconscious mind work?

From what I’ve read, it seems to work a bit like a slowly simmering stewpot, patiently processing and blending all the fascinating observations that the conscious mind drops into it. And all that interesting stuff just perks along, undisturbed, way down at the bottom of the pot.

With a stew, you would ladle a portion of the entire blended result into a bowl, a little bit of every ingredient, and savor it all together.

But — again from what I’ve read — rather than a smooth blending of all available observations, your subconscious may work more like a creative mash-up, constantly combining individual concepts at random. And whenever this random matching produces a compellingly appropriate or logical result, it elevates it directly into your conscious mind, and bingo! You’ve had an idea.

French mathematician Henri Poincaré described in detail* a creative experience of that sort sometime in the late 1800’s.

So again, if a writer has supplied her subconscious mind with a collection of drives as described above — her fictional character — could it be that, along with all the rest of the creative work that writing entails, the old stewpot starts mixing and matching and testing events and challenges from the story in the context of that made-up collection of drives, producing behaviors logically compatible with it? And then, if the writer has the gall to ask that personality, which she created, for some action or reaction outside the range of responses that it would logically provide, could her subconscious refuse the illogical request and depict the character’s behavior as it should have been according to the original imperatives?

Such an occurrence could explain why a story often works best when a character is allowed the freedom of its own inclinations, and why a writer would be wise to at least pay attention to what the character is doing, and why it is doing it, before she thwarts it. That fictional logic system just might produce better ideas for itself and for the story than the writer would think of without it.

So if you are a writer, I suggest that you show some respect for the characters you have so carefully created. If there is a strong reason to go against a character’s logical inclination, the story will read more believably if the character is given a convincing reason to decide, on its own, within the story, to go against its nature. If the story doesn’t allow that, consider redesigning the character with imperatives that will logically produce the results you want.

After all, where else could its sense of rightness or wrongness come from than your own subconscious mind?

Copyright @copy; 2015 by Paula S. Jordan

* From “Mathematical Creation” by Henri Poincaré:

“For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds, I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.

“Then I wanted to represent these functions by the quotient of two series; this idea was perfectly conscious and deliberate, the analogy with elliptic functions guided me. I asked myself what properties these series must have if they existed, and I succeeded without difficulty in forming the series I have called theta-Fuchsian.”

“Mathematical Creation” by Henri Poincaré, collected in The Creative Process, A Symposium, edited and with an introduction by Brewster Ghiselin, 3rd edition, 1984, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. Pages 25 and 26.

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