I’ve always been intrigued when authors talk about a character who ‘takes over’ as if the author is just along for a ride. I’m as eager as any writer to meet a strong character...one whose voice I can simply sit down and record on paper as she speaks. Perhaps I’m too new at this game to have met one.
Stranger Than Fiction (Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman...what are you waiting for!) portrays such an author-character relationship. Critics seemed baffled as to how to bill this film (comedy? drama? romance? fantasy?) which, although nominated for a Golden Globe, received mixed reviews. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone but a writer could appreciate all of its nuances. But it’s a must see for novelists. (And graphic artists, who seem as excited by it as I am.) The DVD’s worth owning just for Emma Thompson’s role.
It was mind-blowing to see the author-character relationship enacted on screen. We’ve got the character. He’s begun to hear his life narrated while he lives it. We’ve got the novelist, who is brewing and testing out possible endings for his story. Finally, we’ve got the renowned professor of literature in an earnest attempt, for the sake of the character who appeals for his help, to arrive at the author’s identity and the character’s fate by methodical means. First he determines the book’s point of view, from a recitation of a single omniscient sentence. Next, its genre, from the character’s recent experiences. Finally, his destiny, from a description of the author’s tone and voice.
“Wow,” you say. And rightly so.
This would make a great party game. (Be sure to invite a few avid readers – you’ll need to pair them up with less literate friends.) Rip two chapters from the middle of a bunch of novels and describe the narration and a couple of salient events to a partner whose job it is to guess both author and ending. You only get to read aloud one sentence.
But I digress. In Stranger than Fiction, although our character puts up a struggle in his own cause, he is ultimately subject to the mercies of his inventor. It’s meeting him that undoes her. She is clearly gratified to see him fully – and unerringly – realized. “Your hair! Your eyes! Your shoes!”
Sadly, my own characters seem quite shy. So far I’ve had to coax them out of hiding, and while over time they do reveal themselves in enchanting ways, they certainly haven’t led me by the nose. Despite having let them know I’m a team player, they seem inclined to defer to me. Judging by the corners I’ve painted us into, we might do a whole lot better were they stronger-willed.