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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 09, 2007

the gestating virgin

Yesterday I finally had time to take up cudgels again for writing my book. It was one of my least-favorite kinds of writing sessions: one in which I struggle to recollect the threads of what I'm working on. Eventually I realized that, after my break of several days, I just could not remember what my thoughts and intentions were with respect to my current chapter (30). Nothing for it but to go back and read the (highlighted portions of) my Word notes.

The notes document for chapter 30 now runs to 35 pages. When chapter notes get long like this, I become anxious. Admittedly, the first 13 pages of notes are mostly extracts from research texts. That still means over 20 pages of actual cogitation-and-creation notes.

Mind you, the overall quality of these notes is high (take my word for it). In my effort to understand what drives my characters, I must dig. And dig, and dig.

"Oh, pshaw!" you might say. "A character's motivation is just whatever you make it. Decide on one, and go! Don't talk in that quaint way about 'discovering' the motives of a character, as though he were a real person. You've said yourself that characters aren't real people."

Yes, true. I've been skeptical of this kind of talk from writers, which is finally a form of pathetic fallacy, I think. I remember reading a nonfiction work by the novelist John Fowles, in which he described working on The French Lieutenant's Woman. He said that when he was writing a scene for his character Charles, he had the strong feeling that Charles wanted to diverge from his path and go down to knock on the cottage door of the heroine. Fowles declared that it was a real, definite feeling of intent coming from the character--that was how he experienced it.

Yeah, right, I thought.

I was already a writer myself by then, and not had any such experience--at least, nothing so definite. Of course, I never had a very clear idea of what the hell I was doing in any case. But my suspicions about this Frankensteinian moment of the composite character suddenly rising from the laboratory bench are backed up by Robert McKee in his Story:

Research from memory, imagination, and fact is often followed by a phenomenon that authors love to describe in mystical terms: Characters suddenly spring to life and of their own free will make choices and take actions that create Turning Points that twist, build, and turn again until the writer can hardly type fast enough to keep up with the outpourings.

This "virgin birth" is a charming self-deception writers love to indulge in, but the sudden impression that the story is writing itself simply marks the moment when a writer's knowledge of the subject has reached the saturation point. The writer becomes the god of his little universe and is amazed by what seems to be spontaneous creation, but is in fact the reward for hard work.


To discover what drives a character, you need to know his world, for that is what he is responding to. It's an ecological task: to understand how the animal functions within its environment, for the two go together. The cheetah is an animal of the African savanna; it can't function in the Arctic or in the Arabian desert. It is what it is, and behaves as it behaves, because of the environment in which it exists.

Finding this level of authority for a remote historical period is, of course, difficult. But I find, as I keep at it, that insights do come. Gradually, gradually, my main characters start emerging from the fog of potentiality into the clear outline of specificness. As I learn--or decide--something definite about my world, my characters acquire something toward which they can have an attitude, and thus define themselves.

In fairness to myself, I've made a lot of progress in the last month in understanding more about my world. While the historian and the archaeologist have to refrain from making positive statements beyond what the evidence permits, and so leave their picture of the world frustratingly vague, the storyteller must commit. Nothing can be a maybe; the finished picture will be the result of countless definite choices.

My finished world will be in high-definition, and so will my characters. And look how long it took us to get high-definition TV.


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