In a moment of lucidity, Ernest Hemingway said something like this:
There’s nothing to writing…all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.
Hemingway, of course, lived in a far-off and happier time. Try that today and you’ll short out your laptop or tablet, or whatever. And I’ve heard a rumour (however unreliable) that many literary agents don’t take kindly to opening the mailbox and finding reams of paper drenched in slowly congealing blood.
To embrace literality, of course, is to ignore the obvious. Masha puts it more clearly in her post:
How much of our flesh goes in the inkpot, and how much comes back out again? Jenna writes that her "inkpot adamantly refuses to give forth its contents unless a bit of my own flesh goes in”–goes in, but what comes out?
For the author of fiction, Masha suggests, what comes out are people. The flesh in the inkpot transubstantiates into characters, other lives in other worlds. ‘Many characters have a good deal of the writer in them somewhere,’ she says, ‘but some have none at all, and some have too much.’ In particular, she dislikes characters who seem to be idealised versions of the author—nervous, fussy little academics writing about Don Giovannis. Masha cites Camus:
A character is never the author that created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.
Camus, however, is being too pat, too neat. One is tempted to say ‘too smug’, but to accuse a French philosopher of smugness is to accuse an English aristocrat of reserve—it rather misses the point. Of course an author is all his characters at once. If he simply flitted in and out of their heads like a vagrant ghost he’d simply be a patient in need of serious medication. The profound skill of the author is the ability to balance an entire, imagined world, and all its inhabitants and their personalities. This can reach obsessive levels: in this way, Robert Jordan perhaps epitomises a certain kind of literary creation. But the author must possess the ability to hold the entire work in his head. And that means he must hold all the characters at once as well.
Every decision in the craft of writing, from divining whether a story is a novel or flash fiction, who the protagonist and who their perspective is, to the latter refinements of individual words in revision, depends on this ability. An author may not be aware that this is what he’s doing. But an author must understand the whole—what’s more, the unrealised whole, the potential of the art, not merely the words on the page before her—to create or to revise at all.
I am not sure this is something that can be taught, unless through bitter labour one teaches it to oneself. I think, rather, that it is this particular squint, this ability to see an entire, potential narrative, and then to successfully convey that linguistically, is what marks the author, the literary artist.
So when Hemingway says:
A writer should create living people; people not characters.
A character is a caricature.
I respectfully suggest he hadn’t the faintest idea what he was on about, unless he is making a swaggering jest. An author creates characters to live in her world, to inhabit her story. Taking a charitable view, Hemingway is quibbling over terms, preferring empathetic, convincing characters to stock types and cut outs of melodrama. What perhaps he means is that a truly successful character imprints himself on the imagination with a startling, uncanny vivacity. A convincing character seems in some way to live.
And yet it goes all wrong when the author tries to make the character living. One need only briefly contemplate Conan Doyle’s tremendously embarrassing story about Holmes as an old man helping thwart German plans in the Great War to see that a character ought not to age with his readers, or his writers. Woodhouse, in contrast, got it brilliantly right by maintaining Bertie Wooster in a perennial, Olympian youth, long after Edward had passed and the tumultuous Elizabethan age was under way.
When we write, we do not make living people. We make immortals. Not quite gods, bounding in elemental ferocity across the heavens and overwhelming us with fear and adoration. But not ordinary people who age and die and are buried. If our characters have life at all, our characters are living forever in the twilight worlds we have written for them. Every act of writing is crossing into this threshold, cobbling together words and bits and fragmented things in a few fleeting moments. And yet what we’ve built there lingers long after we’ve left, and readers find our characters lively, genial friends longer after we are forgotten.
We do not write with flesh but with thoughts and images. And when we cross into that Unworldly, eternal, imagined space, we find no material to build what we have imagined unless we are willing, Horcrux like, to weave together the immortals with the torn and weary shreds of our souls.