Writers Talk About Writing
The Writer-Reader-Character Bond
Whenever we read fiction, a three-way bond springs to life between the writer, the reader, and the characters:
Writer and reader are real human beings, the characters are imaginary, but to write a believable story, the writer must convince the readers that the characters are as human as he or she and we are, and draw us into a conversation in which facts of life may be compared and foibles confessed.
Writers balance the bond differently, but Honoré Balzac's opening of Cousin Pons demonstrates the basic method. In the first sentence Balzac creates the mild-mannered composer Sylvain Pons, walking along the Boulevard des Italiens. In the second sentence he and we mingle with the background characters and see Pons as they see him:
Whenever this old man came into view, habitual idlers sitting about and enjoying the pleasure of sizing up passersby, let their features relax into a typically Parisian smile, indicative of irony, mockery, or compassion.
A few more sentences and Balzac is so sure that he's got the reader strolling with him that he addresses us as "you":
So, among the millions of actors who play their parts on the great stage of Paris, you will find [similar old men] who just go on wearing all the absurd fashions of their time.
As simply as that Balzac has brought the writer-reader-character bond to life, has pulled us to his side and begun pointing out the people who live in his imaginary world.
The writer-reader-character bond may be the greatest reward of reading good books: what rich friendships may we have with Shakespeare and Hamlet, Cervantes and Don Quixote, Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe! Many modern writers, however, are shy creatures who wouldn't dream of taking us by the arm with a comradely "Dear reader." Instead, they introduce the characters to us, then let us get to know them on our own, acting as if they weren't there at all.
Balzac is so present in his writing that we must make his circle bigger than the other two:
Balzac describes every fact and fiction exactly as he sees it and dives into long digressions because whatever oddity he wishes to explain interests him. He makes himself our bosom friend. After describing Pons in the boulevard, Balzac adds that seeing such curious old men:
can arouse you to mirth even when you are wandering about trying to stomach the bitter grief of being betrayed by someone who was once a friend.
I'm shocked: we haven't reached the bottom of page one, and Balzac is sharing emotions I'd find hard to discuss with a brother. By saying "you," he challenges me to admit that I know what he means from my own experience. Yes, I must admit: I have wandered city streets in foul moods and still been amused by strange types crossing my path. With that sentence Balzac makes himself far more than my guide; he tells his heart to me and impels me to tell him mine.
Anthony Trollope also draws us into his world by keeping up a running commentary on the characters we're hovering invisibly beside. Yet Trollope's asides, unlike Balzac's lectures, are humble admissions of human weakness; here two found at random:
When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
Our archdeacon was worldly — who among us is not so?
"We're all human" — that's Trollope's relationship with his characters and readers. He's a good-natured fellow with much to share, and in Trollope novels, writer, reader, and character stand shoulder-to-shoulder as comrades:
George Eliot also invites us to slip unseen through real streets alive with real people, but she knows that the three-way bond is really a two-way bond between writer and reader, and she creates her characters, not to make us marvel at their believability, but to open a conduit between herself and her readers. Late in Adam Bede the evangelical preacher Dinah Morris visits Hetty Sorrel, imprisoned for murdering her own child, in her gloomy cell:
Hetty kept her eyes fixed on Dinah's face — at first like an animal that gazes, and gazes, and keeps aloof.
"I'm come to be with you, Hetty — not to leave you — to stay with you — to be your sister to the last."
Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah's arms.
They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again.
Their embrace communicates Eliot's sympathy with us. She creates Dinah, who can unlock hearts, to unlock our hearts. As Dinah reaches out through the prison cell darkness to hug Hetty, Eliot reaches out through black ink to hug you and me:
Theodore Dreiser was first a newspaper reporter, and his training shows in his basic three-way bond. This unforgettable picture of a leader begging rooms for a shabby gathering of Bowery bums:
A few spectators came near...then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd...
"Silence!" exclaimed the Captain. "Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have someplace to sleep tonight. They can't lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?"
"Well, we'll have to wait here, boys, until someone does. Twelve cents isn't so much for one man."
"Here's fifteen," exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. "It's all I can afford."
— Dreiser takes nearly word-for-word from a non-fiction magazine article he wrote a year before he started the novel.
His cool reporter's point of view makes his readers cool reporters too. Dreiser places us at his side among the "pushing, gaping crowd." We stand shoulder-to-shoulder as we do with Trollope; undoubtedly we touch as we jostle. Yet we share none of Trollope's intimacy, and still less do we embrace Dreiser as we do Eliot. We are simply there, an accidental grouping of people in a place, each alone, each watching.
James Jones began writing with the basic bond. In his first novel, From Here to Eternity, Jones introduces his characters as Balzac and the others do, with concise portraits that place them against detailed backdrops — here Prewitt:
When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third floor porch of the barracks, brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.
He leaned his elbows on the porch ledge and stood looking down through the screens at the familiar scene of the barracks square laid out with the tiers of the porches dark in the face of the three-story concrete barracks fronting the square.
As the novels progress, the outside view diminishes from a framing device to a slender thread that sews together large patches of the characters' thoughts and feelings.Paragraph after paragraph in Whistle, his last novel, begins with a character's name and an emotion: "Landers felt badly..." "Strange was aghast at himself," "Instinctively Winch sensed..." Jones sketches the characters' outsides — "His uniform was wrinkled from being slept in," "For a moment he stared down at the black instrument," — but describes their inmost thoughts in detail:
Somewhere down in the deepest part of his mind, in some place he wished neither to investigate or explore, but consciously knew was there, was a strong feeling, a superstition, that if he could bring Strange and Prell and Landers through, without them dying or going crazy, and make them come out the other side intact, he might himself come through.
As Jones shifts his point of view, he shifts the three-way bond from writer and reader standing beside the characters to their standing inside each character, living in his thoughts and feelings:
We still stand beside Jones, but instead of he and we walking the streets where the characters walk, we are inside the characters as they walk, and we see the streets and the other characters through their eyes.