in·vent verb (used with object)
1. to originate or create as a product of one's own ingenuity, experimentation, or contrivance: to invent the telegraph.
2. to produce or create with the imagination: to invent a story.
3. to make up or fabricate (something fictitious or false): to invent excuses.
4. Archaic. to come upon; find.
1. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown): to discover
2. to notice or realize: I discovered I didn't have my credit card with me when I went to pay my bill.
3. Archaic. to make known; reveal; disclose.
My last post drew some consistent responses from Alis Hawkins, David Isaak and Akasha Savage on how writers get characters down on the page. None of us, it seems, are into drawing up "character sketches" in advance of writing, although some us would work that way if we could.
What we all talk about instead, and we are hardly alone in this, is "discovering" characters. It's almost a shorthand for the way writers work. There's an unspoken that discovering characters is authentically artistic, a communion with the muse, whereas inventing them is chilly, academic and formulaic. In fact, one rarely comes across a writer who admits to inventing characters at all (they might, however, concede that they invent something vulgar, like a plot; the deity that is character is exempt from such sordid machination).
Let's look at the definitions at the head of the blog, though. I can discover America, or electricity (although as it happens others got there first in both cases); I can even discover Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen, on the other hand, did not discover Elizabeth Bennet--she invented her.
It's clear that when writers talk about discovering character, the discovery in question is metaphorical. We are inventing ("2. to produce or create with the imagination") our characters in the same way that we invent every other aspect of our fictional work.
So why is the metaphor so pervasive? Are writers slaves to cliche, too lazy to think of fresh modes of expression? (NB: rhetorical question, particularly if you think the answer is "yes"). "Discovery" in this sense emphasises the gradual and iterative nature of character creation. Those of us who recoil from the index-card approach (Linnalitha: 5' 6", blue eyes, red hair; mercurial, flirtatious, reflective. Likes nuts but not fish.) would argue that you can't design a credible fictional character in isolation, however comprehensive your thesaurus. What we do as writers is not so much discover as experiment: what happens if we write a scene with this character interacting with that one? The writer will have a subjective sense of whether it "works" or not; this will make their impression of the character that much more concrete, and so the next experiment can take place on a firmer footing. The whole of the first draft can be seen as a progressive series of experiments, with feedback between each phase; each character a hypothesis to be tested, either to destruction or refinement. Second and subsequent drafts then use the data gathered from the full series of experiments to return to the beginning and re-run the initial experiments.
In this metaphor, the entire novel is a hypothesis, not just the characters. The writer sets out with a supposition that a given idea, a given set of characters and milieu, forms a viable prose fiction--and then goes about proving that hypothesis true (in contrast with the true scientific method which sets out to prove a hypothesis false).
So next time a writer talks to you about the process of discovery, ask yourself if instead they aren't really talking about "experiment":
1. a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.: a chemical experiment; a teaching experiment; an experiment in living.