Month: November 2012

Creators and Creations: Writers and Their Characters

Few things in writing are more thrilling than seeing the characters in your novel come alive. Instead of forging scenes with great labour out of dead material, suddenly you have real people interacting on the secret stage in your head. All you have to do is transcribe their conversations and you’ve got great dialogue. And yet — you made these beings. They are (almost) entirely in your power.

Almost, indeed. Every writer has probably created a character who has not turned out as originally envisioned. When I began writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of my Herbert West Trilogy, I was certain that Herbert West would be a villain rather than a hero, as he is in the original story by H.P. Lovecraft on which the book is based. He was an amoral type who used other people, both dead and alive, as experimental material. Lacking a freshly dead corpse to revivify, he made one by killing a man. How could such a person be other than a villain?

Complicating all this was my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. To Charles, Herbert West was not uniformly black, but a multi-hued creature at once repellent and fascinating. By associating with Herbert, Charles became his friend as well as accomplice, and so presented him to the reader in an ambiguous way.

Members of my critique group have suggested that I became enamored of my version of Herbert West, sometimes making things too easy for him as a result. After some defensive huffing and puffing, I had to admit that this was so. My Herbert, like H.P. Lovecraft’s original, is slight, blond and bespectacled, but he is also well-dressed and charming — an enigmatic, possibly dangerous dude in an attractive package. I preferred to have someone like that living in my head, rather than a garden-variety grotesque geek. Coming up with a background for him that would explain his corpse-revivifying interests, and devising a more interesting end to his career than being ripped to shreds by his own monstrous creations necessitated three books.

How did this happen? How did a fictitious character who began as amoral, perhaps evil, turn out to be almost (but not quite) the opposite? I blame Charles Milburn and Loreena McKennit. Charles allowed himself to be charmed by Herbert into helping him with his dubious experiments. And while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened repeatedly to Loreena McKennit’s CD The Mask and the Mirror. I was especially taken with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” her arrangement of a poem by the mystic St. John of the Cross. Something of this song seeped into my writing and turned the course of the narrative and the natures of my principal characters.

This example illustrates the complexity of the relationship between an author and his or her fictitious characters. Reaching into yourself to create fictional people is a potentially powerful process. Those characters are in some way slices of yourself, shaped — perhaps distorted — by conscious and subconscious impulses not entirely under your control. That’s one of the things that makes writing so exciting, and perhaps a little dangerous.

And be careful with music when you’re writing! It has a potent effect on the brain, so it’s no wonder that it can get in there and mess with your imaginary creations.

Too Many Leaves!

I spent this morning wading through masses of fallen leaves, overloading my compost pile with them, fishing them out of my pond and in the end cursing them.

There seem to be way more leaves than usual this fall, most likely because we have had fewer windy days and the leaves stayed close to home, rather than being blown to other people’s yards. Anyone who has read the garden-related posts on this blog must know that I often complain about the trees (Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven) that make my garden drier and shadier than I would like. I have also muttered about too much wind. Now that I’ve had to deal with the results of a windless autumn, I may appreciate windy days more, at least while leaves are falling.

In The Essential Earthman, gardener Henry Mitchell commented wryly on people’s zest for raking up fallen leaves, “as if the fate of the garden depended on raking them immediately.” It’s true that raking leaves is a fairly simple-minded chore and perhaps more fun than cutting down peony and daylily stalks, planting bulbs and pruning roses. A big pile of leaves with bare lawn around it surely does show that a gardener has been industrious.

Never mind that I, like the improvident gardener Mr. Mitchell speaks of, haven’t as yet cut down my peony stalks, or, for that matter, those of asters or the trailing stems of Geranium “Anne Folkard,” which wrap themselves around the rake like tentacles when I try to rake leaves from the perennial beds. Wouldn’t it be much easier to rake if I took the time to cut down those stalks and stems first? Of course, but then who says a gardener is always rational?

Tidiness aside, there are a few good reasons to rake leaves. First, thick mats of leaves on the crowns of perennials can lead to rot and slug attacks when the plants sprout in spring. Second, leaves blur the edges of garden features such as lawns and paths, imparting an instant air of neglect. That might not bother some gardeners, but it bothers me.

Having dug up the stepping stones of this path last summer, I would prefer to keep it leaf-free. “What path?” you say. “What stones?” Exactly. Which is why I raked it (yet again) this morning.

Finally, I will mention leaves and ponds. Now I know that installing a pond in the proximity of several large trees is not a good idea, but it’s too late. Every year I spend a considerable amount of energy removing fallen leaves from my pond, and every year quite a few of them sink to the bottom and add to the sludge layer down there. Unlike Henry Mitchell, I do not drain, clean and refill my pond once a year. More like once a decade, so all those sunken leaves are a cause for occasional fretting. Because the pond is the lowest spot in the garden, any nearby leaves tend to end up in it, so it’s important to rake them up.

The trees are finally bare and the majority of leaves corralled in a huge, messy pile (it can’t really be called a compost heap) that will eventually break down into leaf mold, which is always useful in the garden. But the wind has picked up and it promises to be a windy night. I just know there will be leaves in the pond again, and also in the basement stairwell, another popular low spot. I’ll be kept busy chasing leaves until next spring.

Plot or Character?

What’s more important in a work of fiction — good plot or good characters? If you could have only one, which would it be?

I’ve decided that I prefer good characters. A catchy plot is just an extended idea if the characters who play it out are cardboard cutouts, types without substance. Fully developed, complicated real-people characters can be interesting to read about, even without much of a plot. In other words, I’d rather read a scene in which interesting characters are just chatting than one in which a couple of ciphers are on the run, in peril of their lives from another (evil) cipher.

So why is it that genre fiction with “type” characters is so popular? It seems that most people prefer plot over character, the plots acted out by a variety of types — the tough guy hiding an inner wound, the spunky heroine with a troubled past, the family man with a secret life, the perfect wife coming to terms with a shattered marriage. There are quite a lot of these types, but we see them again and again. I suppose they’re sort of like product brands — as soon as you recognize them you know what to expect. Plot-driven fiction shuffles types around in a variety of patterns like the coloured chips in a kaleidoscope. Small variations produce enough patterns to keep readers happy.

Literary fiction is often called “character-driven.” The writer creates characters with rich, life-like personalities and juxtaposes them in situations that quite often are those of everyday life. The interaction of the characters in these situations produces the plot, which is often subtle and concludes ambiguously.

So why do readers prefer genre fiction to the literary? I suppose it’s because it’s more work to derive satisfaction from the latter, with its need for a greater degree of reader attention to appreciate the subtleties and to make the intuitive leaps. And ambiguous endings are more satisfying to write than to read.

Inevitably, I am drawn into an analogy with food. Reading literary fiction is like making and eating a salad. First you get the materials out of the refrigerator — lettuce, cucumber, green (or red or orange or yellow) pepper and the indispensable tomato. Peeling off a few lettuce leaves, you notice brown spots and rotten bits. You rinse the leaves, washing away the gross stuff, shake off the water and rip them up into bite-size pieces. Then you wash and slice the other ingredients, finally tossing them together. Add your preferred dressing (which you could also prepare from scratch!) and the salad is ready to eat.

Many would avoid all this and reach for a bag of  potato chips. Many prefer the predictable patterns of plot-driven genre fiction to the assemble-it-yourself mosaic of character-driven literary fiction.

But why not have both? There actually are a lot of books that have both well-developed characters and compelling plots. I suspect that they tend to be on the long side (all that showing, don’t you know), and don’t go down quite as easily as pure genre fiction. Reading this kind of book is perhaps like making a  grilled cheese sandwich with a sliced tomato on the side — not quite as much trouble as putting the salad together, but significantly more than ripping open that bag of chips.