My Characters, My Selves

The other day a writer-editor friend on Facebook posted a quote from Truman Capote: “You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.”

An interesting discussion ensued. The first comment took issue with the word “blame.” So do I. But characters come out of a writer’s head somehow, even when they’re based on real people. I’m not my characters and my characters aren’t me, but whatever my characters do or say rises in my mind, travels down my arms, and is transmitted to paper or screen by my fingers.

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as the old guy said — I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m not my characters, my characters aren’t me, but I’ve imagined them. I’ve brought them to some kind of life.

Creating characters is probably the weirdest thing about writing fiction or plays. It’s totally juju. Joan of Arc’s voices don’t seem strange to me. I sometimes wonder if I might stumble off the edge and forget that my characters are characters. What if I ventured into my fictional world and couldn’t find my way back?

Can writers create believable characters if we don’t have the seeds of those characters in our heads? I suspect not. Whether we dare acknowledge and nurture those seeds into fully developed characters is a whole other question. A character in my novel in progress is a man who has sexually abused his stepdaughter and may do so again. He’s not a viewpoint character. I don’t want to get into his head, and I’m not sure I could.

Actually, now that I think of it, what I’m really afraid of is that I can get into his head. This fellow has appeared in a couple of scenes already. He acts like a trial lawyer at the family dinner table. His wife steps gingerly to avoid triggering his temper. Hmm. I recognize this. I grew up with something similar. I learned from my father how to intimidate people with words.


That’s me on the right, ca. 1993, in rehearsal. I was playing a rather timid nursing-home volunteer. Words came out of my mouth in an English accent that isn’t mine. I wasn’t her, but we definitely had a connection.

Characters often do things that their creators would never do, and say things that their creators don’t believe, or wouldn’t say in public if they did. Do authors really hide behind despicable characters to say the despicable things they believe but don’t dare say under their own names? I’m sure it happens, but I’m equally sure that if you want clues to what the author believes, you have to look at the whole work, not just the words or deeds of one or two characters.

Good actors can be so persuasive playing despicable characters. They have to connect with some despicable kernel in themselves to be that persuasive. When they’re really persuasive, viewers may feel an unsettling connection with that despicable character. Writers both create the characters and watch them in action. That can be pretty unsettling too.

When a really horrendous act is reported on the news, a common response is “how could anybody do something like that?” Me, I’m immediately working out a hypothetical trajectory in my head: how did this person get from birth to the point where he (it’s usually a he, but not always) could do this terrible thing? Into the cauldron of my mind go whatever sketchy details are available and everything I’ve read, heard, or experienced about, say, war, poverty, hopelessness, anger, addiction, fanaticism, denial, the way that humans tend to get swept away by what the other humans around them are doing . . .

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m still having a hard time with that abusive stepfather.



3 thoughts on “My Characters, My Selves

  1. Thanks for expanding on this topic, Susanna.

    I work out a hypothetical trajectory, too. I am endlessly fascinated by whatever it is that makes a person go down what we consider the wrong path, as if somehow I have the power to go back in time and hug that person to my bosom and heal the pain so that they* can choose a different path instead. And nobody gets murdered.

    *Epicine “they,” deliberately chosen.


    • I’ve been reminded several times recently that where you’re lucky or unlucky enough to have been born also makes a big difference. While Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being tried in Boston for his part in the Boston Marathon bombing, I was copyediting a biography of Vladimir Putin, which went into some detail about events in Chechnya after the breakup of the USSR, including the massacre at the school in Beslan. I would be a whole different person if I’d been born into such a place and seen the things that those people have seen.


  2. The Latin quote says it well, right? Believable characters come from the writer’s skills and experience too. Even the greatest imagination isn’t, in my opinion, enough to create characters that readers will like or dislike, love or hate. Having lived enough to know what being a human being means is essential to the craft. And it’s not a question of age. Some young writers, like young actors, can excell at creating compelling characters or playing unforgettable roles. Although, often, experience simply based on a longer life, can help.
    Interesting post. Also I love this black and white picture of younger you.


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