The Independence of Characters: Another Response to Sam Mulberry

So, we got some interesting email comments this week from Sam Mulberry, which Nate explains at the beginning of his own response post. (Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t yet. I’ll wait!) Sam makes some important distinctions between sports and art, the chief of which is the relationship of final outcomes with a shaping will: a game becomes what it will be as the players compete in the moment, and its conclusion isn’t determined by any single human intent; art, too, is realized in time, but also (in some way) present from the beginning within the artist’s imagination. Therefore, while we CHPers may talk of “narratives” in sports, what we really mean are the imaginative ways fans and even analysts make sense of the outcomes of games, seasons, and careers. What appears on an ESPN blog twenty minutes after the game may be a story, but the game itself is not.

Still, as I think Nathan has shown, we spectators seem bent on wrenching intractable events into plotlines, before, during, and especially after the events take place. The statistics and their trends are forgotten, but the plotlines remain. Narrative is an irresistible habit, and our attempts to overthrow a recognized plotline only substitute one less obvious. So, while Sam is right to assert a distinction between sports and narrative art, it’s a distinction we instinctively resist.

But that’s all review of Nate’s post! What I’d like to address is a parallel phenomenon on the narrative pole of our event/art binary: namely, the independence of fictional characters, who, arising in an author’s mind, seem to develop an existence of their own. This may seem strange to anyone who has not attempted fiction, but I assure you it’s a real thing; indeed, it’s a commonplace among authors. It’s also one of the major concepts in Dorothy Sayers’s Mind of the Maker, which I cannot recommend highly or often enough. According to Sayers, “unless the author permits [characters] to develop in conformity with their proper nature, they will cease to be true and living creatures.”

[T]he free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril. It does sometimes happen that the plot requires from its characters certain behavior, which, when it comes to the point, no ingenuity on the author’s part can force them into, except at the cost of destroying them. (67)

This is what we mean when we say that a character’s action was “in character” or “out of character.” It’s also one of Aristotle’s principles regarding characters in his Poetics:

As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. (XV)

I must stress, though, that Sayers is not legislating consistency of character as an external standard, in the same way that Aristotle’s insights are often treated (or dismissed) as “rules.” Her observation is from experience: she feels her character’s life pulse beneath her pen’s nib, and knows that, as when one holds a small creature, too much force can end that delicate vitality. We’ve seen this character death often enough in film—a forced romance, an unbelievable change of heart—as we become unhappily aware that we are watching actors recite lines. The spirit has returned to wherever the wind goes, leaving a sad lump of man-shaped clay.

But characters are not always such frail things, and sometimes they fight back. To this, I can bear testimony. I’ve described myself before as a frustrated fiction writer, and this is one of the things that frustrates me. A story I’ve had simmering on a back burner for three years can serve as my case in point. It involves a sequence of improbable (or impossible) events: a Restoration-era Englishman, shipwrecked and cast ashore on Japan, is swept into a quest to kill a surviving dinosaur. (Makes sense to me!) But a problem has arisen: my protagonist steadfastly refuses to rise to the occasion. He has been given a sword, but he is no good with it. Like Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he insists on going about things in his own idiom, but he hasn’t told me what that idiom is. I could “decide” that he will now be the Greatest Swordsman Who Ever Lived, but then he will be a Mary Sue, not who he is. And, though it is hard to explain, he’s convinced me that this is his story, that I shouldn’t just exchange him for another, more predictable hero. So, I wait, letting the story gestate until my protagonist has figured out what he wants to do.

But isn’t the story the important thing? After all, that dinosaur isn’t going to kill itself! The plot must carry on, right? No, it mustn’t—not this plot. This is my Englishman’s story, not the dinosaur’s, and I tell it for love of the protagonist, not just a boyish desire to see samurai battle a dinosaur. It’s because I love my creature, you see: I’m proud of him, and will be still prouder when he comes into his own and I can show him off. Again, Sayers agrees, which convinces me I’m on the right track:

[T]he creator’s love for his work is not a greedy possessiveness; he never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work. The more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want his work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of himself. (130)

My Englishman’s recalcitrance is a kind of success, you see. That he fights me shows that he is something more in my imagination than a daydream proxy or a stereotype, and that is satisfying. The Hawaiian policeman, on the other hand, is a failure: though I need him to thwart the scheming shark-god cultists, he remains a limp two-word description. But that’s another story!

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