When Characters are Real
by The Editor Company
Thus spake a writer, being in thoughtful mood:
"When you get a plot for a novel, and outline it carefully, and sort of diagram the chapters, and get together a complete framework, and set in your little dummy figures, and decide what each shall do and how he shall do it, and then fill in the detail without deviating from the plans and specifications— why, you haven't got a novel at all. You may have a long story, of some interest, with some wooden figures doing stunts in it, but you haven't got a real novel.
"If, however, your hero does some things you didn't expect him to do, and your villain develops a few creditable characteristics that are disconcerting to your plan, and your heroine surprises you at times, and your characters generally annoy you by doing things that compel an occasional rearrangement of your plot—why, it's possible that your completed work will be the real thing."
Now, this same general idea has been advanced before in more graceful language, but these words give it an emphasis that seems to make it worth repeating. It offers a rule by which a man may, in some measure, gauge his own work in the actual writing. If he is the absolute master of his characters he may be mighty sure that they are not real, and that they will be speedily recognized as mere uninteresting dummies. A real character in fiction may give its creator almost as many surprises as the counterpart of that character would in real life. The only advantage that there is in handling the fictional character lies in the fact that the writer has it in his power to create conditions that will compel the character to do his bidding. If he attempts to compel this obedience, without creating the necessary conditions, he will merely destroy his character and spoil his story.
How often have you heard a reader exclaim disgustedly, as he finished a book, "Oh, thunder! that fellow never would have done what the fool author has made him do!" How often have you felt that way yourself. That's when the author tries to dominate the character, in order to end his book according to plan. It can't be done successfully. A character may be managed by the judicious manipulation of fictional events, but domination is out of the question.
Get behind the scenes, and you may hear some such conversation as this:
"Now, to end this story right," says the author, "I" want you to do so and so."
"I won't," says the character. "You may destroy me and rig somebody up in my clothes to do it, but I won't."
"Dear me!" says the author. "Such a perverse character! I wish I hadn't let you get so independent." Then he thinks it all over, and rips his plot up the back, and rearranges the conditions, and then he asks, "Now, will you do it?"
"Certainly not," is the reply. "I'm not that kind of a character, and you ought to know it."
Well, the author and the character struggle over the question for a week or a month, and finally the author either succumbs and lets the character do as it pleases, or else rearranges conditions so that the character feels justified in doing what the author wishes. But the author is never the autocrat of his Characters—that is, of real characters. Some of them—the characters, not the authors—behave pretty well, and can be managed without serious trouble, but they all have to be managed rather than ruled, and you can never tell when one of them is going to develop the most aggravating obstinacy at the most inopportune time.This, of course, applies to novels rather than short stories. The short story, depicting merely a cross-section of life, does Hot give your character the chance to go astray that he has in the longer tale. A good many short stories have no char-acters at all—merely talking dummies—and, even when they are real people, you have only to figure on what they will do in that one little, carefully planned cross-section of life. You select the character you need for that particular purpose, and go ahead. There isn't much chance to fool you in so short a time, although it does sometimes happen.
But in a novel the character usually works out with the story. You really meet him for the first time when you begin to write. It's a good deal like meeting a man of whom you have heard a good deal. You have formed a fair general idea of what he is like, and, for a time, he seems to be very much the kind of a man you pictured to yourself. But he gives you some surprises. You become intimate with him, pass through many varied experiences with him, and he develops unexpected and unconsidered traits—human traits, not all good and certainly not all bad. You had regarded him as almost wholly good or bad, and these experiences and this familiarity uncover the astonishing fact that there are unexpected lights and shadows that had not occurred to you at all. In the course of time you awaken to the knowledge that he is really not at all the man you pictured, except in some superficial details, and that you misjudged him in many ways. He wouldn't be likely to do things you thought would be second-nature to him.
That's the way it's likely to turn out with your hero or your villain or any other real character in your novel. You discover, when you get pretty well along, that he wouldn't act the way you expected him to act in the circumstances that you carefully framed up for him. Very likely you make this discovery when you are close to the finish, having been so interested in getting acquainted with your characters that you have neglected to notice how far they have been getting from the path you carefully marked out for them. Then you have to stop and wrestle with these perverse people that you have created.
That's the explanation of many a lingering finish to a novel that has run along smoothly in the earlier stages. The author explains that he is having some trouble working the plot out satisfactorily. Nonsense! He probably had his plot worked out before he wrote a line, but his characters have proved obstinate. He knows how the story ought to end, but the characters won't end in that way, and he's trying to effect a compromise with them by devising some new ending, or some new situation that will justify them in agreeing to the old ending.
If you never have any trouble with your characters—if they always do just what you want them to do, and never develop any unexpected traits—why, you are certainly not writing the great American novel for which the publishers are so anxiously looking, and you might as well make a fresh Start,
Mere incident is not enough, except for the most ephemeral success ; there must be real character delineation, and character must develop with the story, just as it does in real life. Complete advance analysis is no more possible than would be a complete forecast of a man's life based upon advance knowledge of certain important events. Study the character in the making, and, if it's human, it will give you some surprises.