In his book On Writing, Stephen King uses a unique illustration to describe the relationship of the author to her story. Novelists, suggests King, are less creators than they are discoverers. He writes,
“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” [pgs. 163-164]
Elsewhere (in Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales), King repeats the point.
“Stories are artifacts, not really made things which we create and can take credit for, but pre-existing objects which we dig up.”
It’s an interesting perspective and one which has important ramifications on how we view fictional characters and the stories they show up in. If stories are “pre-existing objects” then the writer’s duty is simply to expose them for what they are, not manipulate them for the author’s end. But complete autonomy for a fictional character is absurd. Isn’t it? Surely J.K. Rowling had a choice in Harry Potter’s destiny. Or did she? Did Harry exist in some archetypal gloaming which Ms. Rowling was privileged to penetrate? Or is the boy wizard simply a figment of one woman’s imagination; is Harry’s journey, his emotions, his friendships, his adversaries, HIS story, simply a pawn for his creator’s whims?
Not long ago, one of my characters woke me up. I had been wrestling through a plot problem with my WIP and this character burst into my subconscious with a startling suggestion: Kill her. I immediately dismissed the thought, kicked the troublemaker out of my brain, and tucked the would-be victim back in bed. But over the next few days, the seed of that suggestion took root. Several days later, after considerable consternation, I pulled the trigger. Literally. But something else died in the process.
My desire for TOTAL CONTROL over my story.
The possibility that fictional characters should possess a degree of autonomy scares control freaks like me. It also scares those with strict conventions about what a story should contain. I mean, the author who believes that “magic is of the devil” would have a fit controlling Harry Potter. In that scenario, poor Harry would probably renounce witchcraft and become a sock puppet for the author’s magic-less universe. Of course, while stripping Harry of any autonomy may empower his creator, it doesn’t do justice to who he actually is. Or should be. And maybe that’s the real question: How much autonomy should we give our fictional characters? And what do we do if their choices go against ours?
As King answered in his memoir on writing,
“When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around.” [p. 159, bold mine]
So who “controls [your] material”? You or the story and its characters?
One of my beta readers expressed a little concern for the language in The Ghost Box. Mind you, there’s no F-bombs. Nevertheless, the story involves PIs, police, criminals, and other gruff, street smart characters. The reader suggested that the profanity does not make the story any better, to which I agreed. But while the profanity doesn’t make the story any better, it is true to character. And hopefully, by staying true to the characters, my story IS better off for it.
- Are we demanding characters that fit into our worldview, or the worldview they actually inhabit?
- Are we constructing characters who are truly autonomous, or just puppets for our own opinions and values?
- Do we have the courage to let our characters speak their mind, without interjecting our own?
Or is all this talk about autonomous characters complete nonsense?
All I know is that when I excavated my protagonist, he cursed. I’m hoping he will eventually clean up his language. But I’m just the author. I can only make the suggestion. The decision is ultimately up to him.