Following on my previous blog post about Anne de Bourgh, I wish to address a quirky topic. Who controls the story? The writer or the characters?
My first introduction to the idea that characters were in control of their stories occurred some twenty-five or thirty years ago. I was reading an article about or by a famous writer — James Michener, I think — in the New York Times Magazine. (Michener and the NYT magazine are fixed in my head as the source of this story, but I might be wrong on both scores. I hope someone can set me straight.) In any event, the article’s author reported that one day the famous writer was working at his desk when, as it happened, his assistant walked in just as he jumped up, threw his pen down, and exclaimed, “I didn’t know he had a brother!”
I remember thinking, That is very strange. How can the writer not know something so important about his character? This was in the day when I was an educator and researcher in nutrition, not a fiction writer. As a nutritionist writing for the general public and the research community, I was always in charge.
The second manifestation came like a thunderbolt several years later. It made me sit up. It buzzed around in the back of my head like the old Ipana toothpaste jingle, popping up at odd times. I had never imagined anything like it. The source of the quote is Edith Wharton. Writing in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, she spoke of how character names came to her. They lurked in the background for years before walking right into a story. One such name that bothered her was Laura Testvalley. Here is what Wharton says:
Another such character haunts me today. Her name is still odder: Laura Testvalley. How I should like to change that name! But it has been attached for some time now to a strongly outlined material form, the form of a character figuring largely in an adventure I know all about, and have long wanted to relate. Several times I have tried to give Miss Testvalley another name, since the one she bears, should it appear ever in print, will be even more troublesome to my readers than to me. But she is strong-willed, and even obstinate, and turns sulky and unmanageable whenever I hint at the advantages of a change; and I foresee that she will eventually force her way into my tale burdened with her impossible patronymic.1
Wharton’s foresight proved true, for Laura Testvalley is a governess in Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers. (Wharton died in 1937 before finishing it.) The novel is about five wealthy, American girls who go to England to find husbands among the landed aristocracy. A TV mini-series based on the novel was released in 1995.
I was dumbstruck when I read her words. How could she not control Miss Testvalley? What precisely did she mean by saying the character became “sulky and unmanageable”?
Not until I my first novel, Rosings Park, was underway did I come to understand what she meant. When I developed my storyboard for Rosings Park I knew which man Anne de Bourgh was going to marry. I chose an 18th-century portrait to remind me of his looks and character. I wrote a biography of his life. The stage was set. The attraction between the characters was certain. Everything looked promising … until Anne became sullen and uncooperative. At one point she wouldn’t talk to either him or me! Her obstinacy forced me to throw out the storyboard and write, as they say, by the seat of my pants. She kept me guessing about her future until nearly the very end.
Thus, my experience suggests that characters can control the story — perhaps not always or in every instance, but often. I wrote the story I was given. It isn’t my story. It’s Anne’s.
So much about the writing process surprised me. I had not imagined being under the protagonist’s control. I never dreamed her wishes could rule over mine. I never anticipated misreading her character. When I fleshed out her biography, cataloged her idiosyncrasies, and articulated her motivations, I imagined her being bright but shy, sickly (of course), fairly comfortable living under her mother’s thumb, and disinclined to go against her mother’s wishes. Ack! I could not have been more wrong. Oh, she is intelligent, sometimes sickly, and very like her mother in some ways. But she’s also a determined, willful little thing. Who knew?
1Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Chapter 9 (section 9.1).