Plumbing your depths

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Almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post about beginning a new novel and how I planned on taking elements from myself to fill out and define the main character. In that post I highlighted how common a technique doing such is, citing Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut as two luminaries who provide examples of the practice. I also mentioned that by doing so “your main character’s head is your head” and thus “it’ll be much easier to get inside it.” On that aspect of “getting inside” there is an earlier point made that writing about people that you actually know, rather than just imagine, can add depth and edge to your characters that otherwise might not be there. A year on from that post and with lots of writing in between I want to revisit the idea with some fresh perspective.

First of all, whatever my intentions may have been, my main character ended up being only a very little bit like me. I am grateful for that in some ways as there are many things about my main character that I came to dislike (as a person, not as a character) in the course of writing. I was able to really get into his head though, and certainly my starting point granted an easier and smoother entry there. In writing him too I realized how cathartic the practice of writing can be as I took parts of my psyche and exaggerated them in my character, working through elements of my self that might have remained hidden had I not been so introspective in my writing process. That was illuminating, actually, and I feel like I can say that I personally have made some progress towards better mental health as a result – no small thing.

Elements, then, of me became elements of him but he does not reflect me in either totality or even in an exact degree regarding those very same elements. How so? For each of us, wonderfully complex as we are, our wholes are much more than the sum of our parts. In the final stanza of “Fever 103°” Sylvia Plath (I’ve been reading her a lot lately) includes the very striking line “My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats”, implying that she has a number of “selves”, a number of “faces” that she inhabits, embodies, exhibits, etc. as she turns towards the world around her. Of course she is not speaking only of herself, this is a statement of universals; we all, the case can be made, have a vast number of selves and there is no singular “me” (the case can also be made against this view – and I would make it – but I here use “selves” as different from Self (or me or I) in order to differentiate and to refer only to this idea of “faces” or “masks”). Her old “selves” dissolve, they are dirty and discarded, as she forges a new identity and new way of being, of relating to the world. In this she experiences herself as a multiplicity.

She experiences herself; now we have come to the real rub of the matter. If I am writing a character based on someone I know, or on a type of person that I know, my view of them will be based on my interactions and experiences with them. I know them only in that indirect way, and how they see themselves will necessarily be different from how I see them. What does that mean? That in truth I can but write a caricature of them even if I have associated with them for many years and think of them as being one of my closest friends. My knowledge of them is only – and can only be – knowledge gained from the outside; even if they open their heart to me and share all their deepest desires I will experience that sharing through the lens of my own mind and my own thinking and my own feeling and my own being. I can never have their view of themselves as it is from the inside. For that, for that purely error free and impeccable view, I have but one source and one destination: myself. How then to write who we know? The answer seems clear; write out of yourself, scour your own depths of being (your own “selves” or “faces”) for elements, take from this or from that and then from there build and expand. Naturally in the course of such an undertaking elements of others that you know or have observed will come into play and there is no problem with that, nor is there any real issue with the inevitable failure to have an inside view of someone else for when it comes to your characters you do have an inside view. You have made them, after all, and it is your challenge to inhabit their heads to the full extent that you inhabit your own. How well you are able to do that, I think, will depend on how well you are able to explore your Self.

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