Saturday, December 10, 2005

characters: can't live with them, can't, etc.

Here's a great quote from Harold Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech (which I found on the cleveland poetics forum):

The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, a cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek.

I like this—it says something about how I feel about my own characters. I’m not totally in charge, although I’m always trying to be. Sometimes I just have to wait and see.

This is the kind of thing that sometimes annoys nonwriters (and some writers, too)—it sounds mystical, a kind of waiting-on-the-muse (my sister especially hates the idea of the muse). But it’s not the muse that does me any good—it’s listening to the characters themselves. Sometimes they tell me when I’m going wrong—not in a vision or a voice in my head—but by becoming intractable. They don’t want to do what I want them to do. Or rather, to be more sensible and unvisionary about this, the characters that I’ve created are not consistent with the actions I’ve just tried to make them do. I hope I’ve learned to pay attention to this.

Today Carl is racing around looking for Lily, who may have decided to commit suicide. I didn’t know anything about this until 2 days ago. I thought I was listening to my characters, but no one told me.

Harold Pinter goes on to say:

But finally you find that you have people of flesh-and-blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

I take this to mean that your characters (and your story) become more and more themselves, leaving you less and less room to maneuver out of the track that they (you) have set them on. And this is a good thing, Pinter thinks; it means you’re doing your job as a writer. “Language in art,” he says, is like “a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.”

So be ready.


Blogger writer said...

You're so right. You can't engineer fictional characters and conversations any more than you can in real life. You have to hear it happening in both.

kitchen hand

12/12/2005 10:06 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

Hey, kitchen hand! I love your blog.

12/13/2005 9:51 AM  

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