Thursday, July 10, 2008

Experiment is the Mother of Invention

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.

dis·cov·er verb (used with object)

1. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown): to discover America; to discover electricity.
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":

ex·per·i·ment noun

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.


David Isaak said...

Hmmm. I tend to think the process of character creation, when it's going well, is a discovery in the literal sense. I think the conscious mind is uncovering something the subconscious has already put together.

The subconscious has probably put the character together in response to the conscious mind mulling matters over; but the subconscious mind fleshes things out with its dreamy logic, and thereby comes up with a more holistic character than the conscious mind can manage. The effect, at least to me, is as if I had uncovered something previously hidden (even if in fact I was hiding it from myself!)

Alis said...

The way David describes it is precisely how I experience it. I've learned over the years to trust my subconscious to get it right over my conscious thought processes. My conscious mind tends to over-complicate, my subconscious is far more pared-back, simple and effective.

Akasha Savage said...

I agree with David too. I think subconsciously my mind has already formed my characters to a degree, and my conscious mind brings them discreetly to the fore. I think what proves this, to me anyway, is the fact that I felt I needed another character in a certain area of my novel-in-progress, so I very consciously 'invented' one. It just didn't work out...within a couple of days writing, ole Arnold Snelling just had to go!

Tim Stretton said...


For all three of you, the character process is akin to an archaeological dig: you scrape away the sand, and underneath you find Troy.

It doesn't feel like for me. When I start writing a character, I don't get the sense of a hidden whole which I need only excavate: when I start, I have a few dots on the page. As I write, I join the dots, maybe adding a few of my own, sometimes to arrive at a shape which was not what I thought it would be!