Thursday, August 19, 2010

Am I my fiction's protagonist?

My on-line writer's group tossed around these questions recently: "How much do you hide in your characters? Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?" The questions, posed by one of our group's sage members, spawned a longish discussion thread, and strike me as questions that any author of fiction wants to consider from time to time. How about now?

The first thing that occurred to me when this topic came tumbling down the wire was Carl Jung.

In Jung's "subjective" mode of dream interpretation, every figure in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer.
The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic. This simple truth forms the basis for a conception of the dream's meaning which I have called interpretation on the subjective level. Such an interpretation, as the term implies, conceives all the figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer's own personality. (Jung, Dreams, 1948)

I think there's a case to be made that a lifelike work of fiction is like a dream -- and an author like the real-life dreamer, dreaming allegorical dramas. This is hardly an original concept: remember "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on" (Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV.i)? Spoken by the fictional Prospero, himself an echo of the bard, reflecting that created existence is not so distant from conjured drama? You might say that there is no other way an author can conceive characters and scenes than through a lens of imagination, inflected by experience ... no matter how real they read. That is, fiction is projected through the lens of the author's self.

And yet ...

One wants to believe that human beings "know" other human beings, whatever shrinks and philosophers want to make of the concept "to know" (never mind transference and projection). I don't think of colleagues and friends as aspects of myself. Part of what attracts me to writing fiction is the opportunity to express, explore, and develop empathy -- a connection between autonomous selves -- with people who form some basis (in whole or in part) of my characters. Part of what attracts me to reading fiction is an interest in the same kinds of connections with characters born out of another author's experience.

In my current novel, I do have 'models' for most of the characters: sometimes simply physical models, sometimes emotional or intellectual models, sometimes personality models, sometimes a mix. They tend to be 'partial' or 'composite' models; the characters in Consequence don't map to actual people, one-to-one. Early in its gestation, I began to think of one very dear friend as a part of the composite-models for three characters in my novel manuscript. He's a rich enough character in real life to support that degree of slicing and dicing, and I know him well. For what it's worth, though the partial-model is a man, one of the characters whose roots can be traced to him is a woman; I have based the female character's physical traits on a different old friend (whom I know less well, as it happens). Of course, each of those three characters has evolved into something more than and different from the composite models through which I first & roughly imagined them.

Riffing on Jung's subjective mode of dream interpretation, if one's own self supports the cast of characters in one's dreams, why shouldn't a good friend support a cast of characters in one's fiction?

Here's how Dan Berger, another member of my writing group, articulated his experience in this vein:
Models allow you to provide a context outside of yourself to explore territory both viscerally and more objectively. They allow you to imagine how other people think, which allows your character to consider things in ways you wouldn't naturally consider them otherwise. In short, models provide a way for some poor unsuspecting character to work through your issues on their own terms.

And yet ...

Coming back to the question posed to my writing group: "Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?" For me the answer is a resounding 'yes.' If I weren't working something out that is interesting to me, how could I summon and sustain the focus and energy necessary to write and revise and revise and revise a novel-length mss.?

The way I work that process is to set up a problem that I care about in a novel or short story; then I let the characters work it out. For me, "let the characters work it out" involves having some idea what's going to happen: I'm an outliner. But I've found that outlines are merely a great place to start, at least as far as my own fiction is concerned -- just as models are a great place to start when conceiving characters. Do I imagine for a minute that characters and situations and scenes are going to color only between lines drawn out in advance? If I did, I'd be a very silly author.

So, bottom line, what's my answer to the questions that initiated this musing: "How much do you hide in your characters? Is there anything you're working out through some poor unsuspecting character trying to mind their own imaginary business?"

It's complicated.

When you write, in what ways are you your own protagonist? In what ways are you not? When you read, do you often or always -- or never -- identify an author with her/his protagonist?

The image of Prospero, played by John Ioannou, is from the British Shakespeare Company's forthcoming first film, Sweet Swan of Avon. Honestly? I'm pretty skeptical of the promo material, but the photo's pretty cool....

1 comment:

  1. That guy in the flame circle is you, admit it! John Gardner referred to this as the fictive dream (I think in The Art of Fiction). The way we process fiction I think is directly relatable to the way we process our own lives and the lives of those around us: in stories, not fully understood but explained and simplified, often mythologized, and morals applied that fit our worldview. Fiction doesn't create a construct that we as readers imagine a reality around: our reality is a fiction we create for ourselves as we go, and that failure to properly understand the world is what we recognize and accept when we're pulled into that fictive dream.

    Incidentally, riffing on what you said about people as projections of you, I think that the process of maturing (which many people don't do very well) is about really understanding difference, that other people are not aspects of you. We never quite get there, but we can work on it. Isn't that where empathy starts, in the gray area where we perceive at the same time that we are both the same as those around us, and different?