Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Delicate Balance of Character

So yesterday I was listening to NPR (since, as a stay-at-home mom, I would otherwise have no clue what was happening in the world beyond my yard) and I heard an interview with novelist Anne Tyler. I'm not a huge fan of her work- I've read a couple of her books- but I am always interested in what other writers have to say, especially the successful ones, so I listened carefully, or as carefully as I could with a 2-year-old blabbermouth in the background.

Tyler said in the interview that when she sends a new book off to her editor, she feels like she's sending a kid off to New York on the train for the first time, and since most of her characters are oddballs, such a journey would be difficult for them. But after the novel is gone and she starts work on another, she forgets all about those characters, like a cat forgets about her kittens once they're grown up.

I think this is a healthy way to look at it. Getting to attached to your characters is even worse than being too distant from them; for instance, we all know the vampire Lestat is never going to get the stake he so richly deserves (he's just such a damned crybaby) because Anne Rice is in love with him. He'll be tormented and whine about it incessantly, yes, but he'll never die. George R.R. Martin, on the other hand, keeps his readers on edge because they know none of the characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series is safe from his sharpened pen; they learned this in the very first book. Rice fans might like the predictability of knowing Lestat will be tormented but never killed; Martin fans like not knowing if their favorite character will last another chapter. Personally I prefer being kept on my toes, and Rice can't do that with her pet bloodsucker.

Like most authors I feel great affection for my characters: I am sorry when something terrible happens to them, I sympathize with their pain and am glad when they're triumphant. But, as I touched on in a previous post, what happens to them is what happens to them, and I can't change it even if I wanted to- which I don't. The best I can do is tell their stories. And it's always better to tell a story than not. And while I will always have space in my heart for each of them, they do tend to fade once I move on to a new story. However, ask me about a character from any story, no matter how old, and I can still tell you their names, who they are, and what they did. In fifty years maybe I won't be able to, but for now, I know them all. Are they my children, as some writers seem to imply characters are? Of course not. But I still know them better than they know themselves.

Here is the link to the interview with Tyler, if anyone is interested.

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