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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 08, 2005

what do we fall in love with?

Like an invalid recovering from his illness, I am getting back to the writing habits that I'm familiar with. Like keying notes in the morning. This morning from Beyond the Essene Hypothesis and Peoples, Nations and Cultures. My self-made encyclopedia of knowledge relevant to my work grows larger.

Gaining knowledge as I go means that I continuously outgrow the knowledge I had at earlier stages of writing my draft. My knowledge of my fictional world is much greater now than it was when I started writing chapter 1 in 2002. I know much more about not only the functioning of the ancient world at the date of my story, but about the characters I am populating it with. For this reason alone a second draft of any extended work is essential--and there are many more reasons than that.

I research to learn the details of how my fictional world works, but even more than that I research to learn about what the ideas were that drove the people of that time and place. How did they think, and why?

Does this seem academic? Dry?

My mother has in the past summed up her attitude toward a focus on ideas in storytelling thus: "You can't fall in love with an idea!" Meaning that it is character the drives fiction, and character that involves the reader in a story. It sounds right. I didn't want to be the champion of dry, academic fiction-writing; I don't like that myself.

And yet I wasn't satisfied to leave it at that. I do love ideas. Is it the same type of love I have for a character, or a person? Do I love one more than the other? Differently?

My thinking now is that there is no real difference between loving a character and loving an idea. A character is not a person, after all; a character is an idea evoked by words on paper. The thing you "fall in love with" is a construct in your mind, evoked by symbols on a page. There's no human being in sight. Robert McKee also emphasizes that a character is not a person, and cannot be. He expressed it thus: "a character is an idea wrapped in an emotion." A character is a simplification of a person, a certain collection of qualities relating to an idea.

This does not make our experience of characters weak. After all, what are we doing when we fall in love with a real live person, anyway? What is it we're actually falling in love with? If you fall in love with someone at first sight, you fall in love with something that you know nothing of as yet--or very little. I submit that in a real sense you have fallen in love with an idea--an idea of the possibility of a pleasurable or even ecstatic intimate relationship. You have fallen in love with a figure in your own soul. As you get to know that person better, you fall out of love--or certainly the relationship changes from what it was.

A story is about something. A character in a story is also therefore about something, an idea wrapped in traits and behaviors. A character stands for something: Dirty Harry stands for justice, Ebenezer Scrooge stands for the hardening caused by wounds in the past. I suspect that when we discover who we are--our identity--we too come to stand for something. We can become the main character in the story of our life.

Again: story is software for living.


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