Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Character as Fate

Heraclitus believed that a person’s character is their fate. Character -- the sum total of a person’s traits -- influences the choices a person makes, and the consequences of those choices ultimately become that person’s destiny. Or not. Much of life is luck, happenstance, and totally out of our control, though we tend to believe we have much more control over our lives than we really do. But that’s not an issue here because this is a writing discussion, and in our story worlds everything is under our control, and what our characters do determine their own fate.

This is most obvious in a tragedy -- a character comes to an unhappy end because of a flaw in his or her own character, though in today’s stories, because readers like a more optimistic ending, that fatal flaw is often balanced by a special strength. But character/fate works for other types of stories, such as a thriller where a character becomes obsessed with finding the truth, and that obsession leads to both the character's fate and the end of the story.

For example, in Daughter Am I, a young woman is determined to find out the truth of who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead. That determination overrides her usual placidity and takes her on a journey that eventually leads her home again, changed forever. She really did find her destiny because of her character.

I wonder if the opposite is more true (if truth has degrees), that destiny is character. Does what happens to us, both the actions under our control and those beyond our control, determine who we are? Determine who our characters are? This was a theme I explored in More Deaths Than One. So much happened to my poor hero Bob that was not under his control, yet what was under his control -- how he handled his fate -- made him the man he became.

Any discussion about fate and writing would also have to include the question: does the writer's fate affect the character's fate? None of my books have totally happy endings. There is always a pinprick of unease in the background, but the book I am now contemplating -- the story of a woman going through grief -- is going to have even less of a happy ending. Perhaps because I know the ending of my own love story? Not my story, obviously, since I'm still here, but the story I shared with another. Except for my work in progress (the one that's been stalled all these years) the stories I'm thinking about writing now all end up with the characters alone.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel More Deaths Than One (and the second draft and the third) I had the hero Bob meandering around his world trying to unravel his past all by himself, and it was boring. Did I say boring? It was moribund. The story went nowhere because there was no one for Bob to butt heads with.

In the fourth draft of More Deaths Than One, I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop. (Hey, so it’s been done before. The poor guy spent eighteen years in Southeast Asia, and didn’t know anybody stateside. How else was he supposed to meet someone?) That’s when the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.

From that, I learned the importance of writing scenes with more than one character. And yet here I am, once more falling into the black hole of writing a character alone.

Which leads me to my final question: could the fate of the character also influence the writer’s fate? If so, maybe I should decide where I want to go from here, and write my destiny.

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I.

2 comments:

Marian Allen said...

Pat, what a true and moving piece! I very much believe that we have conversations with ourselves when we're honest with our characters. I love your phrase, "maybe I should decide where I want to go from here, and write my destiny." Do it! :)

Marian Allen

Sun Singer said...

When I read, I usually don't know how the author planned out the novel and saw it develop. But as a reader, it always seems to me that the characters are drawn toward certain ends. Perhaps it took the author a number of drafts to discover what those ends were.

Personally, I don't believe in fate, so in my own writing the endings of stories aren't exactly predestined when I began working on them. It's as though the character has a story to tell, one that s/he already knows the ending of, and they are telling it to me.

It ends up however it does.

Malcolm