Writers versus Characters

Just some random thoughts that occurred to me after my latest re-reading of ‘The Hour of the Star’ (a book my best friend considers unreadable).

In the book, there is a character who is the narrator (or who claims to be the narrator, at least) and he is only reluctantly telling the story of the other main character (the actual main character), Macabea. He is reluctant because he feels sorry for her, sorry for the story he has to tell, about her place in the world, her suffering, her lousy boyfriend, et cetera. It’s a sad story and he feels badly for her. At the same time, he is in awe of her in the way that she doesn’t seem to know that she’s unhappy, that she ought to be miserable, but she isn’t. She’s simply alive and all she knows how to be is alive. The narrator-character struggles with this, and in a way he is a reflection if the real narrator, the author, and her struggles with writing about characters in general.

How is a writer supposed to feel about their characters, what they do to them, what they put them through? If a writer has compassion, has empathy or even just the decency to have some sympathy, how can they go about tormenting and torturing their characters as they so commonly (and easily) do?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the lousy boyfriend character, the awful, despicable (if awesomely named) Olimpico de Jesus, an ignorant, illiterate factory worker who dreams of becoming a congressman, though what he’d really like best is to become a butcher. He even dumps Macabea for a butcher’s daughter. He had stabbed a man once, and the erotic thrill of it remains central to his personality. He longs to thrust knives into meat – but why? Because, as the narrator puts it, he “lives for revenge”. Is this why writers write? For revenge?

In writing we invent whole people, whole worlds, and do with them whatever we want. Revenge! In the real world, I imagine very few writers have this sort of power – or maybe they do after they become “successful”. In fact, in our world doesn’t “successful” really mean to have this kind of power over others? To make them do what you want? To have them be your abject servants? Like their own characters are? Heck, even the most minor literary celebrities think they can go around scolding everybody else!

Others have taken up the conflict between writers and characters and I hardly have some massive insight here, only that, as a writer, I often think about my obligations to my characters. In the story I just finished, I wanted very much to be kind, to be good to my characters as much as possible. And not just with a happy ending. You can’t let yourself off the hook that easily. They are not real, true, but who are you to treat even fictional people badly? What does it say about you as a person?

The narrator of The Hour of the Star feels badly for his character, but I felt badly for him. He didn’t want her story to be so rotten, but it was, because it was the truth. The truth as he saw it. She never gave him permission to judge her, though, and in his own way, he was just as blind to his life as she was to hers.

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5 thoughts on “Writers versus Characters

  1. Okay, this subject has come up for me quite often. The topic of how we treat our characters and what we put them through. For me, the plot is the creator of the world and the story line. I spent twenty minutes (20 minutes!) crying for a character that was injured horribly in one of my stories. And it was not my doing. Though I like to take all the credit, it was the plot. It demanded this thing happen. Revenge? Most of my characters I like. Villains I write shallowly of, because emotional involvement would make them more human. I can kill them off and not blink about it.

    I have to ask, do you avoid killing off characters in your stories because they are your creations and you have an emotional attachment to them? It’s a good question. Very good topic.

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    • I’ve offed my share of imaginary people and don’t feel too bad about it. My son says, “it’s okay because it’s entertainment” (though that begs the question, what’s so entertaining?). The more I write and the older I get, though, the more I question it. On the one hand, we’re children playing make-believe, but on the other hand, we’re no longer children.

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  2. That’s a good point. I’ve also thought about it, the difference between childishness and child-like. I think writers explore the world of ideas. We are child-like in that regard. We are awed by things in the world that other, more jaded personalities could care less about. I think we are playing make-believe because our imaginations soar. We ask, “What if…?” It’s a good thing I think, but it makes us a bit different at times. We worry about things that are probably part of that imaginary reality… but then again, what is reality?

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  3. Okay, one last thought on this. I think your son is right. It is entertainment for the readers. The characters do become real within the story and we feel for them; however, once the book closes, the program shut down or however we convey that story to be turned off, the feel of entertainment is diminished and we’re left with just the feel/ideas of the story. I mean, isn’t that how it works? That’s why one story will affect someone so profoundly while another doesn’t. The characters we create and the ideas they convey is what carries it outside the medium. What we’re left with as writers is what we have created and what we have done. Have you watched that movie, Stranger than Fiction? Excellent ideas along these lines…

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