In Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante observes: ‘The characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone, and which nevertheless is a sort of key to all the doors, the real reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping away, filling pages.’
I’d be inclined to turn that idea around. In my experience, that ‘elusive, unnamed [and] shapeless thing’ that resides in my unconscious eventually resolves itself into the dreaming shapes of fictional characters, complete with all their attendant anxieties and complexities. They then take over my ‘real’ life.
I agree with Ferrante that the characters we create ‘never leave you, they have a space-time of their own in which they are alive and increasingly vivid, they are inside and outside you, they exist solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the story must unfold.’
The characters and the story: the story is the mechanism that, in its unfolding, reveals the nature of the characters. The plot is secondary. It is, in the words of Andrew Miller ‘the chicken wire’ that holds together the ‘collection of anxieties’ that is the novel.
Characters, on the other hand, according to Miller, ‘are members of that shifting population of men, women and children who inhabit our inner worlds. Where they come from, whether they are curious versions of ourselves, figures of of the collective unconscious, reconfigurings of those we did indeed once know but have now forgotten, or a mix of all such, no one, to my knowledge, has ever convincingly answered. It does not matter. No one writes for long without understanding that they are entering mystery and will never leave it.’
Writing comes from within that space where the conscious and the unconscious collide. At some point, the writer makes a decision—a conscious act—to put words on paper. A decision to meet the silent challenge of the waiting screen, or the blank pages of a notebook. Often, the ‘pre-writing’ phase—the chaotic, unconscious phase—will have been completed by then: but not necessarily. Either way, the two—the ‘slippery double’—have to be present, to overlap, if not to coexist.
For me, what we call ‘space-time’ or ‘dream-time’ often culminates in a single, visceral moment of illumination. That one moment of inspiration is then followed by months, sometimes years of elusiveness. It evolves into a kind of absent presence that fuels my writer’s self-doubt: Why can’t I recapture the energy of that first imagined moment? Its presence, however elusive, is one that excites my creativity. In the early days of its absence, nothing seems to work. The text is flat and stale. It doesn’t ‘speak’ to me.
And then comes the realisation—one that visits over and over again: that single moment of insight, or illumination, or inspiration, is all a writer gets. It is mine as the result of a long process of unconscious gestation, of dreaming.
Now, I just have to get down to the writing. And the rewriting. And the rewriting all over again.
It is a process that constantly repeats itself. It’s possible that the process differs from one piece of creative work to the next. But at its core is the elusiveness of the dream and the dream-people who take over every moment—waking as well as sleeping.
The mystery is that it feels different every time.
John Banville, in ‘Fiction and the Dream’, writes: ‘A man wakes in the morning, feeling light-headed, even somewhat dazed. Standing in the curtained gloom...he feels that somehow he is not his real, vital, fully conscious self. It is as if that other, alert version of him is still in bed, and that what has got up is a sort of shadow-self, tremulous, two-dimensional...Is he “coming down with something”? He does seem a little feverish. But no, he decides, what is afflicting him is no physical malady. There is, rather, something the matter with his mind. His brain feels heavy, and as if it were a size too large for his skull. Then, suddenly, in a rush, he remembers the dream. The writing of fiction is far more than the telling of stories. It is an ancient, an elemental, urge which springs, like the dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words.’
Some time after I came across these lines, I read Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss. In the novel, Krauss explores, among many things, the art of writing fiction, and how it feels when that creative urge is blocked. She describes the sense she has one day of already being present in her house when she opens her front door, although clearly she can’t be: she’s only at the entrance. At the time, it felt like an eerie echo of Banville’s words.
She writes: ‘I was myself, I felt utterly normal in my own skin, and yet at the same time I also had the sudden sense that I was no longer confined to my body, not to the hands, arms, and legs that I had been looking at all my life, and which I had observed minute by minute for thirty-nine years, were not in fact my extremities after all, were not the furthest limit of myself, but that I existed beyond and separately from them. And not in an abstract sense, either. Not as a soul or a frequency. But full-bodied, exactly as I was there on the threshold of the kitchen, but, somehow—elsewhere – upstairs again.’
But somehow, all the everyday, ordinary objects around her seemed different, ‘touched by stillness’, and that time seemed to have ‘sped up’ while she, the writer, had somehow ‘fallen behind’.
Both writers express this feeling of duality: of the challenges of grappling with what Margaret Atwood calls ‘the slippery double’. That is: the me who dreams, imagines, intuits, and the me who observes, dissects, and crafts.
Many years ago, immersing myself in ideas for my second novel, I had that rare experience of an already fully formed character appearing to me in a kind of waking dream. Not unlike what Banville and Krauss describe above, I suddenly saw myself, sitting at my kitchen table, the slow luxury of a Saturday newspaper open on the table before me. It was the first experience I’d had of that ‘doubleness’ of the self that seems to be an essential part of being a writer.
Everything around me became still—the ‘me’ that was sitting at the table, that is. The other ‘me’ was observing, experiencing this strange moment which felt deep and wide and familiar all at once. Each object in the room became more like itself—the teapot like some essential teapot, its presence hyper-real. In the same way, the table felt more solid, the air more charged, the normal domestic bits and pieces around me brighter, more luminous. Where light fell on them, they shimmered. And my heart was pounding, as it often does after a particularly disturbing dream.
I hadn’t been frightened, not at all. But in that moment, the moment when I seemed to split from myself, something in my imagination had just given birth to a character I didn’t even know I wanted to write about.
He came to me already complete. Even his name presented itself to me: Vinny Farrell. And along with his particular self came the fact that this man’s obsession was to find a sense of self, to forge an identity far removed from the deprived, working-class background that he originally came from. Even the title of the novel made itself known to me with such force that I began to believe it had been lying in the interior reaches of my imagination, gestating quietly, waiting for the moment that would ignite it. A Name for Himself began a journey into a personal heart of darkness. And Farrell was my guide.
I know there are writers who become impatient at the notion of fictional characters ‘taking over’ and going where they will. And of course I accept that every writer has ultimate control over what we write—but there is still a very real sense in which the character that we begin to imagine has the power to unlock something unexpected within us. That, in their creation, the writer is led down an often startling, entirely unimagined path. In that way, we relinquish control and go where the most interior paths of the creative imagination take us. It’s often challenging, difficult work. But it is, in my experience, never less than exhilarating.
Graham Swift observes that the act of writing ‘constantly brings you up against yourself and surprises you with the discovery of what you have inside.’ This is, as he says ‘writing from within’—where else does writing come from?—but that is an entirely different thing from autobiography, or the endless recycling of a writer’s life.
I’ve always been interested in delving into characters who bear no similarity to me: whose lives are different in every possible way. In some kind of inverse process, the more familiar the character, the more difficult he or she is to develop. The more experiences we have in common, the more problematic the invented character’s authenticity becomes. Layers of nuance seem to come more easily from deep within the unconscious, from wherever the perception of difference is at its strongest.
And the more extreme the difference, the better. From a man searching for a sense of self whose obsessive love for his wife drives him to commit the ultimate crime, to a young teenager who commits suicide, to a child with a disability; it seems the more distant from my own experience, the deeper I have to dig, the more authentic the fictional character becomes.
In my ninth novel, The Things We Know Now, the main character, Daniel, appeared to me as a moving image—in both senses of that word. He was clearly distressed. A young teenager, cycling madly towards home, or perhaps away from it. Back then, I had no idea. I had to write his story in order to find out. I knew only that he was bent on some unnamed act of destruction. I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me. I couldn’t hear his words. But I saw him very clearly. And my heart went out to him.
After that initial sighting, Daniel wouldn’t leave me alone. I saw him everywhere. Eventually, the contours of his nature began to take shape. A golden child, talented, loved and loving, but deeply, inescapably unhappy. That much was immediately clear. But why?
Around the time I was immersing myself in the emerging narrative of Daniel’s young life, events in the parallel world—the one we call the ‘real’ one—were unfolding in a distressing manner. One by one, media reports of young teenagers committing suicide seemed to be everywhere. Bewildered parents, friends, teachers tried to grapple with the ‘why’ of this sudden and shocking epidemic.
As I wrote, from within the shadow world of the imagination, my character, imperceptibly at first, became transformed into a victim of the relentless cyber-bullying that was everwhere exercising its murderous grip on vulnerable young people.
I hadn’t planned it that way. But clearly some writer’s antenna had picked up something of what was going on in that other world. I did not write Daniel’s story after I became aware of the epidemic of teenage suicide: I wrote it before I had become aware of it, and then continued to write during the tragedy of its unfolding. It was a contemporaneous activity, not one that came about after a prolonged period of reflection.
I believe that writers often have a sense of what’s going on underneath the surface of things—if that doesn’t sound too precious. Nadine Gordimer, in her introduction to Selected Stories says: ‘Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement: or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment...The tension between standing apart and being fully involved: that is what makes a writer.’
And here again is that sense of what Margaret Atwood calls the ‘slippery double’. The writer, imagining, intuiting, absorbing ‘the lives of others’, and then sifting, crafting, editing those things we learn in order to produce the illusion of a real person, a character with flaws and strengths and prejudices. A person who does not exist: a person created by a silent agreement between writer and reader.
I think writers are primed to intuit stories. To create them out of silence, or misunderstanding. To be aware of undercurrents of emotion—like stepping into some unfamiliar place and knowing that something strange, or upsetting, or dangerous is about to happen there. A sixth sense? Perhaps not: maybe a dream-sense might be a better description. But it is, above all, a desire to bring something from the inchoate darkness of the dream world out into the light.
Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating With the Dead says: ‘Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.’
For me, the novel is character. Plot matters, of course, as does structure and pacing and style and language and voice. But they are essential only in that they illuminate the inner workings, the motivations, the complexities and contradictions of the character into whose skin I have chosen to step, and to inhabit for a long time. Sometimes for years.
Perhaps an extreme example is in one of my latest creations: the character of Mitros in my most recent novel The Way the Light Falls.
Some years ago, I embarked on the ambitious project of immersing myself in Greek mythology. I wanted to breathe contemporary life into those myths that evoked in me that most magical of responses: the sudden moment of illumination, of recognition. Almost as though something had made its way into an internal writerly stillness that had long been prepared for it, however unconsciously.
In the first novel of the planned trilogy, The Years That Followed, I reimagined the character of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, mother to Iphigenia and Orestes. Female characters rarely get a fair shake in Greek tales, and so I set myself the task of being a modern Clytemnestra’s voice. She’s generally regarded as scheming and vengeful, in the tales others tell about her life. I tell the story of a woman raped, kidnapped and abused by her power-hungry husband. A husband who kills his own daughter in order to further his warmongering career. I think any of us might be equally scheming and vengeful, if the circumstances demanded.
In the second novel, The Way the Light Falls, I began with a fairly fluid idea of the structure. The main character, Phaedra, was already familiar to me, but in that stiff, on-the-page historical way that told me nothing about what sort of woman she was. I knew I wanted to work with her narrative: to tell Phaedra’s story, from her point of view, in a way that would engage a modern audience. And I wanted to stay close to as many elements of the myth as possible.
And so, I needed to invent a family for Phaedra: a mother, a father. A sister, Ariadne, and a half-brother, the Minotaur. I wanted the family dynamic to be as complex as possible. As I looked at this ancient family, and the boy that was half-animal, half-human, something came to me, working its way up from the depths. It seemed to me that the sisters, Ariadne and Phaedra, had an astonishing presence in their family life: a sibling who reminded them of all that was elemental, all that was civilized, in one and the same body.
A fourth-century Etruscan wine goblet became further inspiration for my interpretation of Mitros’s character. It shows Pasiphae, the mother of the Minotaur, holding her young son in her arms. She gazes at him, tenderly. This unexpected image stuck me forcibly as one of unconditional maternal love. It was not the accepted view of the monster Minotaur: the one who devoured human sacrifice from the centre of his Labyrinth. Because when I thought about it, the human sacrifice was not demanded by the Minotaur himself, but by King Minos, as punishment for the citizens of Athens; a bloody atonement for the death of his son.
And so, in the Minotaur, I had a vision of the character who became Mitros. A boy whose human form was equally challenged, a boy doted on by his parents, loved completely by his sisters. In this waking dream, I saw Mitros as a child with a serious disability. One who was non-verbal, unable to walk, to care for himself, to be independent.
Mitros became, immediately, the first beating heart of my narrative, just as he would become the beating heart of his family. As I wrote, his character took shape. The boy himself, his unexpected humour, his joy in simple things. The love he wrested from everyone around him. The boy who was ‘saved’, ultimately, by Art.
I have learned, over the past three decades or so, that I cannot ‘will’ a character into being. It’s a process that cannot be forced. It is, above all, a state of being actively passive – not straining anxiously to capture something, but being alert instead to its shadowy presence.
I suppose above all, it is a question of trust, of allowing this elusive ‘something’ to reveal itself when it—and I—am ready, and when it’s no longer possible for us to be separate entities.
In the words of Andrew Miller: ‘You have to have faith.’
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Banville, John. 'Fiction and the Dream'. John Banville Translation Project. www.johnbanville.eu/essay/fiction-and-dream.
Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. New York: Europa Editions, 2016.
Gordimer, Nadine. Selected Stories. New York: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Krauss, Nicole. Forest Dark. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Miller, Andrew. ‘How to write fiction’. The Guardian. 16th October, 2011.
Swift, Graham. Making an Elephant: Writing from Within. Toronto: Random House, 2009.