by Linda Buckley-Archer
[...] nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. David Lodge (The Art of Fiction)
We’ve had some wonderfully historical and robustly technical posts over the last few days which have been fascinating and daunting in equal measure. So I’m devoting today’s post to something I feel more comfortable with: the art of make-believe. In particular, the process of creating, and responding to, characters in fiction. I put the blame for this choice firmly at Louis XIV’s door.
The more research I do on 17th-century Versailles (for a YA/crossover novel I’m in the midst of writing), the more I find myself getting sucked into the character of the Sun King. I have ‘made up’ the principal players and was going to avoid the distraction of bringing Louis himself to life with all that this would entail. I vowed that I would refuse him dialogue or any ‘close-ups’, and was going to restrict myself to third-hand information and an occasional ‘long-shot’ of Louis XIV wandering about what the National Theatre of Brent was pleased to call his ‘pointy tree garden’. But I’m conflicted, to say the least – and feel myself cracking.
Louis’s manners were impeccable, he would even lift his hat to a chamber maid, and he could be charming company. Contemporary accounts also reveal a man capable of acts of touching sensitivity and kindness. Love and hunting took up a lot of time. He adored witty, intelligent women and was devoted to his hunting dogs (see picture of Nonne, Ponne and Bonne) which he fed himself, in his private quarters, with biscuits specially prepared by his chef.
However, his courtiers were often reported to have literally quaked in the monarch’s presence - and for good reason. Louis had it in him to be hard and cruel. For example, when the mother of a workman who had been killed in a building accident at Versailles shouted at him from afar, the King had her taken away and flogged, despite pleas for leniency (her son had, after all, given his life for Louis XIV’s latest house extension). And then there was the notorious man in the iron mask affair: an anonymous ‘man of quality’ left to rot in solitary confinement for more than thirty years for an unnamed crime. So this Bourbon king, around whom revolved one of the most dazzling courts Europe has ever produced, is at once a character who is intriguing and psychologically complex and, for the novelist, a tempting figure to fictionalise. He also, apparently, had terribly good legs.
I have sketched out a few potential scenes and have written some halting lines of dialogue while attempting to mentally ‘inhabit’ this iconic figure. But my instincts are telling me to back off: the Sun King is too ‘big’; he may end up unbalancing my plot. Or it could be that, quite reasonably, I am intimidated at the thought of finding his ‘voice’, and of filling in factual holes with fictional putty (or, I suppose, vice versa) in order to make my narrative work. In any case, my difficulty with Louis XIV has forced me to focus, in recent days, on the function and creation of the purely fictional character.
In praising My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, in a post last week, Catherine Johnson reminded us what a bizarre and wonderful process is the peopling of a novel, and the subsequent interaction of those characters with the world outside the author’s head. Catherine commented that she had to stop reading the novel as soon as she suspected something awful was going to happen to Nadine and Riley. “How old am I?” Catherine asked. “Too old to care that much about fictional characters surely.” Those of us who have not grown out of fiction know exactly what she means.
The fictional character is a powerful creation, and a great one can enter the reader’s psyche as efficiently as a virus can breach a cell wall. I suspect that I do ‘care’ about Jane Austen’s Emma, William Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart (Any Human Heart), Jane Gardam’s Betty (The Man in the Wooden Hat) or Tolkien’s Frodo (T.L.O.T.R.) more than I do about many flesh-and-bloods. Though I’m not sure how healthy this is. If I were absolutely forced to choose between saving an anonymous mortal life and pressing a button that would destroy all traces of Philip Pullman’s Lyra and her daemon for eternity, I’d do the right thing – of course – but with a heavy heart.
These ‘made-up’ characters have been woven into the warp and weft of our lives, and it’s easy to forget that someone else’s imagination gave birth to them. Even stranger, for an author, is when readers insist that your characters wouldn’t behave in a certain way (how dare they?). Yet, given that fiction only properly ‘happens’ in the mind of the reader, who, in the end should have the last word on a character’s inner life?
Characters, even when they portray ‘real’ people are not real, and the language they use, when compared to a transcript of ‘real’ dialogue, is not real. We understand this, and yet, among the most compelling aspects of reading (and writing) are those encounters with fictional characters who truly speak to us. So, as readers we become practiced in the art of suspending our disbelief, and as writers we become practiced in the art of concocting fictional details so that the reader can be persuaded to fulfil their side of the fictional bargain.
Characters need to have the semblance, at least, of ‘completeness’. Readers don’t need to know everything about them (as ever, good writing is all about the telling detail, synecdoche, the part standing for the whole) but they do, arguably, need to feel they understand them. And it is particularly important that - like real people – they can surprise us. It is the curious ‘autonomy’ of the fictional character, this capacity for ‘freedom’, which makes the writer want to go on writing and the reader want to go on reading. If we sense, as readers, that a character is the writer’s puppet, the novel ceases to be a shared journey and starts, instead, to feel like a mechanical exercise. So, to go back to Catherine’s point, the idea that ‘fictional constructs’ have free will and a unique identity, and that when readers encounter them – as so many words on a page - they may actually begin to care about them, is simultaneously absurd and, for many, the raison d’être of the novel: that is, to know, or to imagine that you know, what it is like to be another human being.