By Sally Morem
The novelist Leonard Bishop insisted that stories are never written by characters
as some writers would have it. “Characters are dead images. Characters have no
minds, no relationships, and do not cavort about the pages in a self-motivated,
self-energized search for a story.” Writers write characters. “The writer reaches
the depths of a character because he has skills and know-how.”
True enough. But it merely begs the question. How do writers do that? Consider
another improbable skill: Being able to turn weird little black squiggles printed on
white paper into imagined worlds filled with fascinating people, exotic settings,
and compelling adventure? For this is the magic of reading. When we ponder
this question and come up with convincing answers, we may be well on our way
to understanding how it’s possible for a writer to be able to create well-rounded,
believable characters.
Readers scan lines of print, grouped into chapters, paragraphs, sentences,
phrases, words, but at a certain point, they forget they are doing so. They enter a
world evoked by those lines, those verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs. They are
reading, but find they are no longer merely reciting words to themselves. In fact,
they are playing with concepts. They are readers, but are forgetting that fact as
well. They are observing and participating in a story that glows in Technicolor and
rumbles in SurroundSound. To those who cannot read at all or who can only do
so slowly, painfully, mouthing words one at a time, this ability would seem pure
magic, if they ever even knew of its existence.
Words have the power to evoke realities, our mental modeling of the world. They
parcel out the “booming, buzzing confusion” of a very large, complex world into
small, manageable pieces, making it amenable to our limited minds. Alan Watts,
the lecturer on Buddhism, seemed to disagree. He told the story of a college
professor who was trying to get his students to comprehend the difference
between a word and the thing that it stands for. He held up a matchbook and
asked “What is this?” The students, of course, replied, “It’s a matchbook.” “No,
no, no. ‘Matchbook’ is a noise. Is this a noise? What is it really?” He answered
his own question by throwing it at them.
A word is expressed as a noise or a set of scrawled markings. It is a human-made
symbol for some thing or some event. And yet, when I read the word
‘matchbook,’ I ‘see’ the folded cardboard with matches attached inside neatly
arranged in rows. How could a mere word do that to my mind?
But then Watts admitted to us that he actually knew what words are and what
they do. “So nothing can really be described, and yet we all know perfectly well
what we mean when we talk.” Words trigger our memories, evoking the same
signals that transmit information about sensations to various regions of our brain
even when there is no matchbook in sight. When we listen to a storyteller
describe the young heroine crossing an icy stream in wintertime, we get cold.
Likewise, when we read Melville, we ‘see’ the great white whale lash out at the
harpooners and we are frightened.
None of this should surprise, although it does when we think about it deeply. Our
minds are forever building up mental models of our actual surroundings during
every second of our waking lives; and when we sleep, our minds keep our minds
busy with imaginary scenes juxtaposed in chaotic formations. Just so. Instead of
transmitting and analyzing signals from eyes and ears, our minds analyze and
compose stored memories evoked by words when we read.
The reader, in essence, embodies, dresses, and intones imaginary beings in
imaginary settings, doing imaginary deeds merely by sitting and reading a novel.
The reader is the movie director of the mind.
We now know what the reader is doing. It should now be much more obvious to
us what the writer is doing. The writer is pondering and brooding about the story.
After getting first impressions down quickly in the first draft, the writer revises.
By thinking about and imagining alternatives—different settings, different people,
different actions—while reading the words in the first draft, the writer’s mind is
acting exactly like the reader’s mind. The writer becomes a reader.
The writer sees and hears the harpooners yell, the waves lifting boats high, the
whale breeching the water. The writer rewrites, clarifying the images and actions
with more carefully chosen words. The writer sees the characters, listens to their
words in dialogue and thought, adjusts them again and again until they seem
right. Until they seem real. At this point, if the writer is well into the story and
the characters are well conceived, those characters grow into real people, though
imaginary. But like real people, they begin insisting on wearing this dress, saying
that phrase, and acting in a different fashion. The imaginary people begin acting
willfully within their own story.
This is what writers try to tell novices when they say: “…the character starts
writing for the writer.” Those writers are attempting to impart the core of the
creative act to their listeners—the point at which the creation attains a certain
heft, a reality, a way of being that must be respected by the creator lest the
creator kill it with too much writerly rationality.
Bishop may have objected to the wording, but as a skilled writer, it’s extremely
likely that he too experienced this kind of creative hallucination. Perhaps he
merely dismissed it as a temporary aberration, convinced that he was always
firmly in control. But this is how writers really do it. This is how their skill and
know-how are actually expressed. They first envision worlds with words. And
then when they engage in the serious work of revision, they display their greatest
mastery: They become readers.

Leonard Bishop, Dare to Be a Great Writer, Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books,
Alan Watts, Buddhism: the Religion of No-Religion, Boston: Charles E. Tuttle,

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