Notes on Craft cont.
First I’d like to make a distinction not made in the previous post/discussion to help with the clarity of this post: There's stealing from Life as it surrounds you and then there's deliberately excerpting your personal-life for fiction. I know the first story I turned in as an undergrad was entirely a patchwork of things that had happened to me over the past five years and focused by a then recent breakup -- which is much different from lifting the conversation of the people at the booth next to you whom you have never met.
So I'm still wondering how much of a main character is you the writer? How much (how many elements, if any) of a main character have to be the writer in order for the writer to be sympathetic to her own character?
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. I don’t think there is one way of doing it that is better than another. I think it is completely possible to write an entire story, polish it until it shines and then look at it five years later and realize that the narrator (who may have been so not-the-writer that he was even a different gender) really was you just in different underwear.
In the comments section of the last post, Margosita brought up an author she had been discussing in her MFA program where the author had suffered the loss of a parent at a very young age and many of his characters dealt with the same kind of loss in his novels. I often look at those kinds of correlations as fiction-as-therapy. When a reader brought up to Brad Kessler that after reading the opening chapter of his novel she [the reader] thinks about it every time she gets on a plane he first apologized (it's ruthlessly emotional) and then said "I was really working through something at the time." If that is his form of therapy then I want the man to have more issues because that was definitely a wow-moment for the reader.
But I start to wonder do writers use those characters because of functionality? -- That they "worked" as realistic narrators. -- Or because the author found them compelling enough to drive the conflict? Or because they were characters that the writer was sympathetic to and could spend months and months of her life with?
I agree with Mella/Melanie that often not thinking about [the above questions] while writing is the most productive means to the end. Character development is definitely on art end of the art-craft spectrum of writing. How many times have you heard writers talking about having conversations with characters or going on a date with their characters or that a secondary character clamored for attention and it turned out the novel was really about him, or that the novel – like a river or a living, breathing thing – went in an unplanned direction and couldn’t be reined back in because the characters refused? I think these are all just means of personifying and explaining that it’s an art that comes more from the subconscious and is tooled into something well structured by the conscious -- left brain, whatever -- and that too much conscious thought can kill it. And that letting the character grow organically into a person is useful.
But – to establish yet another unnecessary analogy – when you give birth to a child you know logically that half of his genetic material is your own, but that doesn’t mean he won’t look exactly like his father and nothing like you.
Okay, I don’t even know what I mean by that last thought. But it’s something else for me to think through.
I know I can’t analyze the characters of the projects I’m currently working on because I have a limited sense of who the character is at the moment -- but as a retrospective question I’m fascinated by it. I know it’s not a question writers care to answer. I hated when the damn English literature majors in my writing classes would get all analytical with unfinished work (I was an English writing major and we were much more chill) but on this question I would be interested to think further.
And to drop in another related yet unhelpful thought: in the movie The Martian Child the John Cusack character opens the movie being interviewed on some sort of “Book TV” show about his wildly popular science fiction novels. The interviewer asks him if he’s put himself as a character in any of his novels and he responds [paraphrased] “Oh yeah, I think I’m a character in each of my novels. Not always the same character though. That changes with each book.” The interviewer prompts him, and in this book? “In this book I’m the monster.”