Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Characters

Jonathan Franzen was recently interviewed by Leigh Sales on ABC's Lateline:
LEIGH SALES: I recently read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov from 1967 in which he's told that E.M. Forster says his characters often take over and dictate the course of a novel. And after a scathing critique of Forster, Nabokov says "my characters are like galley slaves". Are yours galley slaves?

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I'm with Nabokov on being intensely irritated by that remark of E.M. Forster's. It's as if to say, you know, "I'm such a special genius that my creations have such enormous vividness, such passionate life that I really have no control over them".

That's a weird thing for a fiction writer to say because it first of all can't possibly be true. But also it would seem to suggest that that kind of writer is abdicating a responsibility for meaning, because what the characters do has everything to do with what the story means and if it's like you're letting the characters say "well no, sorry, I don't like the story you're trying to tell".

You've somehow - if you could do it, which I don't think you can - you would be abdicating the primary responsibility of the story teller which is to create something that means something.
Franzen makes some good points, and I am a huge Nabokov fan. I'm guilty of saying I'm just 'doing what the voices tell me.' There's a certain amount of romanticism in believing there's some external muse talking to you. But if you want to be harsh, yes, I agree with Franzen, it is a w*nk. Although there are some elements of writing in general and characterisation in particular that lead to the kind of distancing that can be mistaken for - or identified as - an external muse.

Firstly a lot of creative invention springs seemingly fully formed from our subconscious, or certainly that's the way it works for me. I know my mind is working on story points and questions at a level below my awareness of it, and sometimes it will throw up one of those 'aha' moments that seems like it came out of nowhere when in fact it really came from deep inside.

Next, when creating a character, and in order for it to be believable, it has to have a consistent operating mode. It's entirely valid for a writer to say, 'my character wouldn't say that', or 'my character would never do a thing like that.' Inconsistent characters lead to bad and confused writing, but thinking about characters as fully formed individuals who have a 'vote' in how the story will unfold implies that they exist externally to the writer when in fact they're simply aspects of the writer's own personality. Again, it's easy to fall into Forster's of thinking.

Finally (though I'm sure there are other elements in play that lead to this type of dissociative thinking), and to paraphrase Ibsen, conflict is the essence of all fiction. If I have a number of characters in my head, then the writing really becomes interesting when they are in conflict. That involves a bit of doublethink to enable the author to argue both (or even more) sides of an argument through the mouths of opposing characters, which again can lead to a feeling that these voices are in some way distinct, external and not originating from the same place.

EM Forster is clearly wrong, but it's easy to see why he might think that way. Maybe Nabokov should have given the guy a break.
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