Thursday 2 February 2012


by Linda Buckley-Archer
[...] nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. David Lodge (The Art of Fiction)

We’ve had some wonderfully historical and robustly technical posts over the last few days which have been fascinating and daunting in equal measure. So I’m devoting today’s post to something I feel more comfortable with: the art of make-believe. In particular, the process of creating, and responding to, characters in fiction. I put the blame for this choice firmly at Louis XIV’s door.
The more research I do on 17th-century Versailles (for a YA/crossover novel I’m in the midst of writing), the more I find myself getting sucked into the character of the Sun King. I have ‘made up’ the principal players and was going to avoid the distraction of bringing Louis himself to life with all that this would entail. I vowed that I would refuse him dialogue or any ‘close-ups’, and was going to restrict myself to third-hand information and an occasional ‘long-shot’ of Louis XIV wandering about what the National Theatre of Brent was pleased to call his ‘pointy tree garden’. But I’m conflicted, to say the least – and feel myself cracking.

Louis’s manners were impeccable, he would even lift his hat to a chamber maid, and he could be charming company. Contemporary accounts also reveal a man capable of acts of touching sensitivity and kindness. Love and hunting took up a lot of time. He adored witty, intelligent women and was devoted to his hunting dogs (see picture of Nonne, Ponne and Bonne) which he fed himself, in his private quarters, with biscuits specially prepared by his chef.

However, his courtiers were often reported to have literally quaked in the monarch’s presence - and for good reason. Louis had it in him to be hard and cruel. For example, when the mother of a workman who had been killed in a building accident at Versailles shouted at him from afar, the King had her taken away and flogged, despite pleas for leniency (her son had, after all, given his life for Louis XIV’s latest house extension). And then there was the notorious man in the iron mask affair: an anonymous ‘man of quality’ left to rot in solitary confinement for more than thirty years for an unnamed crime. So this Bourbon king, around whom revolved one of the most dazzling courts Europe has ever produced, is at once a character who is intriguing and psychologically complex and, for the novelist, a tempting figure to fictionalise. He also, apparently, had terribly good legs.

I have sketched out a few potential scenes and have written some halting lines of dialogue while attempting to mentally ‘inhabit’ this iconic figure. But my instincts are telling me to back off: the Sun King is too ‘big’; he may end up unbalancing my plot. Or it could be that, quite reasonably, I am intimidated at the thought of finding his ‘voice’, and of filling in factual holes with fictional putty (or, I suppose, vice versa) in order to make my narrative work. In any case, my difficulty with Louis XIV has forced me to focus, in recent days, on the function and creation of the purely fictional character.
In praising My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, in a post last week, Catherine Johnson reminded us what a bizarre and wonderful process is the peopling of a novel, and the subsequent interaction of those characters with the world outside the author’s head. Catherine commented that she had to stop reading the novel as soon as she suspected something awful was going to happen to Nadine and Riley. “How old am I?” Catherine asked. “Too old to care that much about fictional characters surely.” Those of us who have not grown out of fiction know exactly what she means.
The fictional character is a powerful creation, and a great one can enter the reader’s psyche as efficiently as a virus can breach a cell wall. I suspect that I do ‘care’ about Jane Austen’s Emma, William Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart (Any Human Heart), Jane Gardam’s Betty (The Man in the Wooden Hat) or Tolkien’s Frodo (T.L.O.T.R.) more than I do about many flesh-and-bloods. Though I’m not sure how healthy this is. If I were absolutely forced to choose between saving an anonymous mortal life and pressing a button that would destroy all traces of Philip Pullman’s Lyra and her daemon for eternity, I’d do the right thing – of course – but with a heavy heart.

These ‘made-up’ characters have been woven into the warp and weft of our lives, and it’s easy to forget that someone else’s imagination gave birth to them. Even stranger, for an author, is when readers insist that your characters wouldn’t behave in a certain way (how dare they?). Yet, given that fiction only properly ‘happens’ in the mind of the reader, who, in the end should have the last word on a character’s inner life?
Characters, even when they portray ‘real’ people are not real, and the language they use, when compared to a transcript of ‘real’ dialogue, is not real. We understand this, and yet, among the most compelling aspects of reading (and writing) are those encounters with fictional characters who truly speak to us. So, as readers we become practiced in the art of suspending our disbelief, and as writers we become practiced in the art of concocting fictional details so that the reader can be persuaded to fulfil their side of the fictional bargain.
Characters need to have the semblance, at least, of ‘completeness’. Readers don’t need to know everything about them (as ever, good writing is all about the telling detail, synecdoche, the part standing for the whole) but they do, arguably, need to feel they understand them. And it is particularly important that - like real people – they can surprise us. It is the curious ‘autonomy’ of the fictional character, this capacity for ‘freedom’, which makes the writer want to go on writing and the reader want to go on reading. If we sense, as readers, that a character is the writer’s puppet, the novel ceases to be a shared journey and starts, instead, to feel like a mechanical exercise. So, to go back to Catherine’s point, the idea that ‘fictional constructs’ have free will and a unique identity, and that when readers encounter them – as so many words on a page - they may actually begin to care about them, is simultaneously absurd and, for many, the raison d’être of the novel: that is, to know, or to imagine that you know, what it is like to be another human being.


adele said...

I love this post! It's fascinating, isn't it, the way we feel the characters we love are REAL. I think that's the very best thing a writer can do: make words into "proper" people we'd know anywhere. And I have a very soft spot for Versailles and will always think of the 'pointy tree garden.' That period is quite fascinating and I am STILL intending to read Hilary Mantel's Place of Greater Safety!

Caroline Lawrence said...

What a fascinating topic, Linda! Real people vs. historical characters... vs real people whom we've made into historical characters!

Like you, I've been trying to keep some of my real historical characters in 'long-shots'. (The Emperor Titus and Mark Twain). But because so much is often written about them (or by them), we encounter them again and again in our main sources and often end up enchanted by their personalities. In this way, they worm their way into our books often elbowing aside our protagonists for plenty of close-ups and dialogue.

One thing you didn't mention is how we authors often care more about characters in a book we are writing than we do about the real people in our lives. A few years ago a friend asked me why I was so downcast. What could I say? That one of the characters in my WIP was suffering terribly? And I was suffering along with this figment of my imagination?

Instead I just told her it was that time of the month.

Kate Forsyth said...

Oh I really loved your post. I've just written a book set in the court of the Sun King & I too found him a fascinating yet terrible character (his dogs slept in satin, his dwarves on the floor). And I loved your take on fictional characters. Also, can I say I loved your time travel books and I look forward to this one!

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow. Wonderful post! And now I terribly want to read your book - and Kate's - and meet the Sun King in person!

And it's true that our own characters can surprise us, because if they are honestly thought through, we can suddenly perceive that they would NOT do what we had planned for them - they would do something quite different, or differently - and I love that moment when a creation declares independence!

Essie Fox said...

I really want to know more about the Sun King. The mixture of charm and arrogance that can lead to such warmth - and such coldness - makes for a wonderful richness of character exploration.

Linda B-A said...

I agree with you, Adele, it is fascinating (weird, actually!) the extent to which we can convince ourself that fictional characters are real - to the point sometimes of forgetting that they are imagined. Caroline - great points both about meeting major characters repeatedly in source material and about how we get emotionally entangled with our characters - I bet I'm not the only one who sheds a tear from time to time when narrating the fate of my wholly imagined characters. I wonder how much of being a fiction writer is quite simply being extremely good at make believe?
Thank you very much, Kate. I am delighted you enjoyed the Time Quake Trilogy and shall certainly look out for your book on Versailles.
Katherine - yes, that is absolutely at the heart of good fiction, the pinnochio-like transformation of words on a page into powerful entities that can communicate to readers in the most direct and intimate way.
Very many thanks for such interesting comments.
P.S. Just seen your comment, Sarah. The Sun King's court is endlessly fascinating. Just to read how Louis organised his day is staggering. He sometimes had 60 men in his bedroom helping him to get dressed; he had many items of furniture made from solid silver...I could go on but I won't. Nancy Mitford's book, THE SUN KING, is a great introduction and is full of good illustrations.

michelle lovric said...

Fascinating and touching post, Linda. Are we not always fascinated by people who are capable of inhuman cruelty? (like having the bereaved woman flogged) Does that make their flashes of kindness more alluring?

Eve Edwards said...

Your description of the Sun King's mercurial nature reminded me of the portrayal of celebs in Hello and other magazines, a sort of royal Jordan/Katie Price! I can imagine some spin doctor has planted to stories of his charm where as the tabloids have unearthed the stories of his cruelty... I'd tend to give more weight to the flogging peasant women than lifting his hat to chamber maids. Nice legs though as you say - love the red stockings.

Leslie Wilson said...

I believe he was quite cruel to La Valliere, too - though most of what I know about him does come from Nancy Mitford. Talking of characters feeling real, I think the charm of that book is the way in which she gossips about her subjects, as if they were part of her own social world.
I am looking forward enormously to see what you do with Versailles of that period, but please do remember the Common People too?
Anyway, I too feel as if my characters were real people, and also as if the things in my novel actually happened, even if I made them up. When I walk along streets where the episodes in my fiction have happened, too, I think: 'Oh, yes, this is where..' rather than 'this is where I imagined..'
If they weren't alive to us, as you say, how could they be alive to our readers?
Great post!

Leslie Wilson said...

I should have said: 'Do keep remembering the Common People,' since you told the story of the woman being flogged, poor thing. I suppose Louis thought he was upholding societal values..his dignity as le grand Monomarche, as 1066 and All That calls him.

Linda B-A said...

Eve's Katie Price/ Louis XIV comment made me laugh - quelle horreur! But biographers all do seem to concur that he really was extremely polite to all classes of society, even workmen. Vincent Cronin suggested that his experience of leading men on the battlefield taught him that a word of kindness won him loyalty and affection more effectively than terrifying his men. And he was always a popular monarch. Leslie - I promise not to forget the 'common people'! The Versailles episode is one in a story that features a working class girl from Mansfield more than the Sun King. Thanks v. much for comments.