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.


The Choice

A mean old lady I used to know has passed away. In her youth she had “romanced” a pair of brothers one day in the back of a model T. When she subsequently got pregnant, the brothers had to choose which of them would step up and marry her. The one who did became a drunk and a miserable failure. The other became a millionaire. Coincidence? Or cruel, cruel fate.


Also at Buck’s Restaurant last night, Johnny and I sat next to a large group, headed by a middle-aged couple, and consisting of a dozen or so ten-to-twelve year olds. It seems it took awhile for their food to arrive, and they had to get somewhere quickly, so they barely got a few bites in before they started packing it all in to-go containers. When they were leaving, I noticed that the man was not middle-aged at all, but more like in his thirties. I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that he was twenty years older when we arrived than when he left. Several theories:

  1. He was replaced in sito at some point by an entirely different person
  2. He went to the bathroom, and someone else came back
  3. He was literally transformed as he sat there – the same man, but regressed in age
  4. I originally mis-saw him. Since the woman was middle-aged, I projected her age onto his face
  5. The entire universe shifted and was put back, but they messed up with this one guy
  6. I had too many beers
  7. But I don’t like beer and never drink it
  8. None of this ever happened. You will forget you even read about it

Shrinking Violent

Escorted out the courthouse doors by his bulging mom or older sister,
the Shrinking Violent feels the rage rise with the wind. His head’s
still itching where they shaved it, and his neck displays the purple
bruises where they held him down. Not for nothing this revenge.

His mom or older sister barely squeezes in her pants, decorated on the
back with the puzzling slogan Apple Bottom. He scans the street to see
who might be witnessing his leave. She puts an arm around his neck. He
shrugs it off. He may be only twelve but he ain’t no fuckin’ kid.

He caught my eye and made a note of it. That one looked at me. I know he
was not ashamed. Just bad luck. When he grows up, tomorrow won’t be soon
enough to lose this cow who’s leading him now into her sporty Dodge.

Violent hunches in the passenger seat. Now he can’t be seen. He has
taken all his senseless acts and wrapped them in a ball of fire. Next
time that fire’s gonna burn red hot.

The Pushed

The Pushed has to be forced at every step. She will do nothing willingly for herself, or for anyone. She seems immutable but can be changed. How far she will go depends precisely on how hard she is pushed.

In the morning she must be wound up. This can happen with coffee. Coffee will get her to work and maybe she’ll go until lunch. If there is not much work for her to do, she can get it done. If there is too much, she will never complete it. She will sit there, empty and staring at the pile.

The Pushed can be made to eat almost anything. If she opens her mouth, she will bite and chew and swallow. To get her to open her mouth, simply wave the item in front of her eyes.

She is at her best from station to station. First one spot, and then the next. She makes a good screening nurse. First she will direct you to the scales. Then she will do the blood pressure thing. Then the temperature taking. She is at her best when saying goodye.

The doctor will see you shortly, she declares, knowing full well it is a lie.

She likes to make people wait. To see them doing nothing, unable to do anything but wait, reminds her of her favorite inactivity.

The Pushed only made it through training because her mother refused to stop pestering her. After a lifetime of raising the Pushed, the mother was not going to stop until she got her daughter out of the house and as far away as possible. The mother promptly retired after that, and moved to somewhere in Florida. The Pushed would like to talk to her mother sometimes, but her calls are neither answered nor returned.

The Pushed does have a social life. Many men ask her out on dates. Once. She seems to be a good listener. She has absolutely nothing to say.

The Pushed has a dream. To go home at the end of the day and watch her shows. She accomplishes this task every night, which makes her a surprisingly content and happy human being.


Impossibly demanding and particular, her favorite words, in order, were “want” and “hate” and “no”. A connoisseur of vintage clothes, she’d boldly go where styles had gone before. Her motto was simply “make it your own”, and this she applied to all those items she both desired and loathed, from bath soap and tableware to cats and dogs and boyfriends. She was always in a hurry and always late. At once imposing and incorrigible, she was usually heard before she was seen, and then she was heard some more. She changed her mind continually, yet was remarkably consistent. Everything new was old and everything old was new. The five steps of K. were seeing, wanting, getting, hating, throwing in the trash.

When you listened to her words you were surprised to find she made a lot of sense. She was quite perceptive and insightful. You would have thought this torrent of consumption would have thought of nothing and yet, it was as if she’d been through that already, was now post-educational and launched headlong into a world of fabric, color and form that lay far beyond the normal reaches of the human mind. Is it possible, you wondered, that the world of knowing and thinking only goes so far, that at some point you must turn it off, and open your eyes, simply experience the senses, and that this might actually be wisdom?

She would scoff at such a notion. Don’t be ridiculous, she’d say. It’s just a stupid dress.

4 am

When the phone rings at 4 am, you only have one thought; someone died, but no, it’s just another drunken loser, calling for “Jill”, who has been handing out my phone number to a parade of drunken losers since 1987. Of course, the frequency and number of calls have gotten fewer and fewer over time, as “Jill” has also gotten older and probably has fewer occasions to hand out her phony number. I imagine that one day I will get a final call about Jill. She’ll be old and senile and having wandered away from the nursing home will give my number, one last time, to the rescuers who find her.