(image by Bruce Nauman)

Novelists get asked a lot of questions, some of which are seemingly unanswerable. Where do you get your ideas?—for example. One of the more common ones, though, is, Are your characters based on real people?

The thing about this one is that when you answer as I do—namely, that they aren’t, though I inevitably take traits from real people in order to put together a fictional person—your friends tend to forget your answer, or simply don’t believe it.

My most blatant experience of this is with 36 Yalta Boulevard, in which the main female character is a Serb from Voivodina (northern Serbia, then-Yugoslavia) who grew up in Novi Sad. My girlfriend, strangely enough, is a Serb from Voivodina who grew up in Novi Sad.

Our shared friends of course picked up on this immediately, which is fine enough, but I slowly got reports back through my girlfriend (no one wanted to tell me directly), that friends were disturbed. They kept thinking that I was portraying my girlfriend as a confused, slightly ditzy person, and they wondered why I thought that about her. My protests seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There are different ways of going about creating, or dealing with, fictional characters. Some writers do take them directly from reality, but like I said, I’m not that kind. In fact, I seldom really get a character until a story is completely finished.

Books on writing will tell you this is foolishness, that you should know at least your main character before writing anything. Make biographical charts! What movie star does she look like? What’s his sexual experience? Give him a hobby!

No, none of that’s for me. It’s just a waste of time.

Back during my grad school years, I took a course with Tim O’Brien. It was just a week-long seminar, but done intensively, every day for something like 5 hours. And O’Brien himself is an intense man. Very physical, seemingly on the edge of exploding, he always looked as if he were wrapping himself around his desk rather than sitting behind it. He was intense.We all turned in stories beforehand, and he read and edited them before the seminar’s first day. Then, after we’d workshopped each one he’d give us back our poor, red-ink-sodden manuscripts, and later have a one-on-one with him. During the workshopping period we’d muse aloud on the process of writing, and O’Brien, being a man of strong opinions, never failed to tell us when he thought we were being sentimental (“mawkish” was his favorite word, and my story was rightly hammered for it) or simply stupid.

One day, one of the students asked how to deal with characters who were getting out of hand, who were seemingly writing their own stories. The other students started nodding their sympathy, chiming in with their own tales of character woe. That’s when I started to feel a little inept—I’d heard of this problem, but it had never happened to me. I wondered insecurely if the the reason was because I’d never written a “real” character, but all these other students had.

With some apprehension, I looked up at O’Brien, and was surprised. His face had contracted in what looked like disgust, and he shouted: “No!”

Everyone quieted.

Then he explained [and here I paraphrase, this was a decade ago]: “What do you mean, characters taking control? There’s no such thing as a character! You made them up, you’ve got to be the one to set them straight!”

There were a few mumured protests that he cut off: “Stories are about plot. Only about plot. Nothing else. They’re not about character. Characters exist only to serve the plot. They have no other reason to exist!”

Everyone around me started becoming sullen, a few upset, but I was immensely relieved. He was voicing something I never felt comfortable saying aloud in my grad school classes, where everyone went on about their characters as if they were real people.

Now that I’m well into the writing of this next book, I find myself continually making notes to alter the characters who have come before. As the story unfolds—that is, as I learn more about the story I’m telling—I find out that the character who existed earlier just won’t satisfy the needs for this later part of the story. I sometimes alter my expectations of the story, but within severe limits. Because the plot—even when I’m still figuring it out—is the master, and the characters must bow to it.

Like I said, others deal with character differently, and they come up with fantastic results. But having spent so much time in school being taught the maxim that “plot springs from character”, I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve found this to be wrong. For me, characters spring from a story, and almost (because nothing in the craft of writing is absolute) never the other way around.

Which is not to say that characters are simple two-dimensional cut-outs who shoot guns and have sex whenever the plot calls for it. Because all characters must have an inner logic.

If your character, the kind Canadian journalist, is going to plug someone with a Kalashnikov in chapter 17, this all has to be worked out. He can’t just do it because the story says it’s time to do it. He has to do it because his inner logic demands it. And all his motivation have to be worked into him, and the story, beforehand.

Which leads to the question: Where does a character’s inner logic come from? Even if you base a character wholely on someone you know, that character’s inner logic comes from you, the writer. Only you.

I may want my character to do something that, say, John Nadler would do. I might make him look and talk and walk like Nadler, even give him the same name and same life—but though he’s a good friend of mine, I’ll never know Nadler’s inner logic. I only know mine. I only know what would need to happen, what kind of person I’d have to be, to pull out a Kalashnikov and start spraying bullets.*

Add to that trying to actually construct an engaging story that has some kind of resonance, and any kind of coherent explanation of the craft becomes muddled, so I won’t go further. This is why writing’s so hard.

Compared to those fellow students who crooned about how much their characters meant to them, and how difficult they were, I suppose my view on it all means I have no love for my characters. That may be true.

I can kill them off and put them through joy and pain without feeling anything beyond the memories of my own experiences, the ones I use to give them their inner logic. I find people who read my books have much greater affection for my characters than I do. And that, I think, is how it should be.

———-*As far as I know, John Nadler has never killed anyone…with a Kalashnikov, at least.