How obedient are your characters?


Who is in control in your novel?

In the preface to his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray refers to two of his characters as ‘the Becky Puppet’ and ‘the Amelia Doll.’ At the end of the novel he writes: ‘Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.’ Few modern novelists would refer so obviously to their characters as constructs, there to do their bidding like puppets. In Victorian novels, writers often interrupted their own narratives to address the reader directly: today we prefer to remain invisible. Tastes and methods change. It is clear that for Thackeray, characters have to be obedient.

By 2003, we have Joyce Maynard, writing in the New York Times (February 24th) declaring: ‘Here's what I believe happens when a writer begins her story with an authentically realized character (as opposed to one from central casting, formed out of the necessity to see a certain preordained action take place). If she allows him to take shape slowly on the page, if she resists the urge to make assumptions based on what she thinks he should do, he'll take on a life of his own and very nearly reveal the direction of the story.’ It sounds as if Maynard positively encourages her characters to be disobedient!

Similarly, Anne Tyler. In a rare interview (with Jessica Strawser, Writer’s Digest, September 8th 2009) Tyler once said, ‘I’m not in the least funny personally. The funny things emerge during that stage that writers always talk about, where the characters take over the story, and more than once something a character has said has made me laugh out loud, because it’s certainly nothing I’d have thought of myself.’

So what happened over those 150-odd years between the Victorian period and today? Writers started to realise that fully developed characters, allowed free rein, can determine plot. It’s a sure argument for not planning a novel too forensically – the characters are given no room to breathe. However, if there is no planning at all, the plot can meander all over the place, leaving the novel formless and possibly aimless.

Without being too philosophical, I guess it’s a question of free will. If we like to think of ourselves as autonomous we are unhappy with the idea of a puppet master, however benign. The Victorians, in a more morally certain age, believed themselves in the grip of fate or divine control.

In the end it’s up to us. Personally, as a teacher, I’m uncomfortable with disobedience, but as a writer I hope I leave my characters room to breathe. As long as I have the last word.