I know the guy in the green shirt because I birthed him. I named him Harvey Kipp. Harvey grew from the sparking nebula of my mind and entered my story fully grown, page 176. He’s based loosely, loose as in wouldn’t fit in a classic dictionary entry, on several boys from my high school. None of them paid me any attention at all so I was in the perfect lurker’s position. I could stand in any hallway and spy on the louts, watching their hands play grab arse with the girls, noticing their leers as others walked by, spotting their wicked hand gestures to each other indicating how high they’d scored. Didn’t matter whether they’d actually scored anything, it was their male mythology and the braggadocio that mattered. Old story of course, naughty teenage boys who likely grew up to become men worrying about the next generation of naughty teenage boys with eyes on their daughters. Twenty-five years will put that kind of wisdom on a person.
I listened to the Harveys in class as they showed off their mediocre interest in the scholastic aspects of high school and repeatedly asked the teacher annoying questions meant to steer the class off track. I grunted when they distracted everyone from a meaningful discussion of Jonathon Swift’s Modest Proposal by suggesting their own immodest proposals and generating laughs from fellow high school cretins. Sitting quietly in the second row afforded me a good view and acoustics for the daily procession of intelligence taking a back seat to arrogant bravado. So when I needed a memorable but loathsome character for my book, I had many doofusses to choose from and created an amalgam I named Harvey Kipp.
I get a bit bleary eyed when writers claim they allow their characters to tell them how they feel or what they plan to do. How’s that possible? A figment of one’s imagination giving directions – that’s fodder for the loony bin, folks. The people with clip boards start hanging around, making notes about your conversations, measuring time lapses between your wacko claims. Then they begin to approach you with syringes and long white jackets. Time to fess up, admit you’re a writer, the person you’re talking to is a character you fabricated. Whew, clip boards walking away. Isn’t that a nice change of direction?
However, Author Doe, I don’t think you’re really on the registry for admission to Far Country Psychiatric Residence if you talk this way. I just think you’re using the wrong metaphor for your act of creativity. Unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, or if you write non-fiction, everything you write is an invention. It’s made up by you, you wordsmithing genius of the writer’s guild. So take credit and say in a proud voice, “Sibley Sussexford carjacked the Mercedes because I wrote her committing the crime.” Don’t tell me she talked to you, explaining she had criminal tendencies and loved to drive the fancy cars she couldn’t afford. Don’t tell me you watched her crack the window and hotwire the ignition and had to write what you witnessed. You made it up and it’s all good that you did. Makes for a fun jaunt down the freeway with six highway patrol cars trying to round robin Sibley into a catchable corner. And you made up that as well, even if you’ve watched a thousand freeway car chases on the five o’clock news.
Don’t attempt to convince me about Sibley’s self-sufficiency by her unbidden presence in your dreams, an independent haunt out to hijack your sleep. She shows up perhaps in your nightlife, but not mine, not your neighbor’s, because she’s a figment of your imagination, whether you’re awake or asleep. If she could manifest herself to you without your internal Ouija board beckoning her, I have to ask why she’d pick someone who drools and snores in their sleep when she could more happily inhabit my pristine and dainty evening slumber? Oh slobber and snort all you will, Sibley would recognize better lullaby digs were she able travel anywhere outside of your head. Alas and alack, she’s brain locked in your cranium, wallowing in your obsession with your book. I know because Harvey sometimes nudges me in mine. Believe me, if I could get Harvey to move over and make room for Sibley, I would. The guy’s a gorilla-handed lummox, and he isn’t any nicer because I didn’t make him Mr. Nice Guy.
The reason you can write about Sibley Sussexford and I can write about Harvey Kipp is because of all the actual, identifiable humans you and I have observed and interacted with down here on the blue planet. It’s our multiple experiences with real folks that allow us as writers to depict a three-dimensional person who carries the genetic code we wrote for them. Be proud of your imaginative mind. Take credit for your innovations. Tell it like it is: Sibley Sussexford never did a thing you didn’t direct, because you’re a writer. It’s one of your best assets.
I am one of those people who says his characters dictate things. Somewhat that’s an excuse for why some stories take too long to complete. But sometimes it’s a “Truth”. I mean, I created the characters and gave them characteristics… but then if my story tries to make them behave counter to those characteristics, they refuse to cooperate. Because I made them do that.
But yes, that’s also part of the process of making the characters. They’re stubborn. Like me. And like lots of people I’ve met over the years.
I agree, Rob – you made them do that. A bit more serious here: writers create characters who function with an internal compass and must act in accordance with their particular cardinal directions. But it is the writer who creates the character as well as his/her personal history, and develops the traits that enable action and reaction in the story.
Well done! I was hoping for a picture of Sibley, though I’ve built one in my mind. You have some great lines in here, Shari–“internal Ouija Board”. That is wonderful.
Thanks you, Jacqui. From you I consider this a high compliment as I so respect your views.
I’ll have to ask Sibley if she’s painted a self-portrait. Back to you after she answers me. (I can be a pain in the you-know-where, can’t I? 😀 )
This post reminds me of the episode of bewitched where the figments of her imagination (while working on the script for a play) literally jump out of her mind and into the world to help her finish her story and make the characters have depth. Now wouldn’t that be handy?
Wouldn’t it? If only.
I’ve read other posts where an author says s/he lets the character lead her/him, or how a character isn’t doing what the author wants and want to do her/his own thing. WHAT–! Is there another part of thought that is neither the conscious part or the subconscious part that I’m not aware of? Or is it a case of the author being severely delusional?
Any problem I have with the characters I create is all because I’m having a terrible time pulling what I want from my subconscious, nothing else.
I’ve always understood the division between me and my books, but Janet Evanovich, in How I Write, was the first writer I’d read (or maybe I paid attention to) who wrote about our characters being made up and not living independent lives. It was then I became aware of so many comments from other writers about how their characters were uncooperative or telling them how the story should go. You’re right, Glynis, about our subconscious inklings to force a story until we consciously turn it in the right direction. It’s all in our own heads, and we should recognize our creativity as well as the writing doldrums we all get into once in a while.
Great insights. For me it’s all about asking the question, “What if?” I usually start with some kind of character outline like, “Man, 30’s, likes green shirts, etc.” And then think of a situation and ask, “What would a man in a green shirt do during a bank robbery.”
Thank you, Andrew, now I know what makes you tick and feel inspired. Always interesting to gain insight to another writer’s creative impulses.