Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Life and Death of Fictional Characters

For ten years I've given my writing students at St. John's University this exercise: I ask each student to stand up and say, truthfully, their name, where they live, and something that they like to do. When they've all done that, I ask them to stand again and this time make up a name, a place where they live, and something they like to do.

In a few minutes Bobs and Bettys from Brooklyn or Boston who like to go to the movies become, with many a giggle, Rosamonds and Ricardos from Abilene or Atlantis who like to ride bucking broncos or to time-travel to planets far beyond Pluto.

When they finish, I tell them, "Congrats! You have just accomplished one of writing's greatest feats: you have created fictional characters."

We readers first meet fictional characters in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and our infantile belief in Little Red Riding Hood and Humpty-Dumpty prepares us to believe in Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes in our youth. By the time we're adults, fictional characters have become so entwined in our lives that it takes a positive effort of the will not to believe in them. Think for a moment: Odysseus, Oedipus, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Captain Ahab, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, Sister Carrie, Mickey Mouse, Jay Gatsby, and many similar creatures never drew a single breath, never ate a single meal, nor worked a single day in their imaginary lives.

Fictional characters are not blood-and-guts real the way we are real. They live only in the minds of the writers who dreamed them up, in the black marks those writers put on white paper to paint them, and in the minds of the readers who, reading those marks, laugh and cry and shiver with fear at the characters' imaginary exploits.

Fictional characters can be princes or pickpockets, mothers or murderers, farmers or philosophers. In The Shining Steven King made the Overlook Hotel into a character who dies in an all-engulfing fire:

The furnace exploded, shattering the basement's roofbeams, sending them crashing down like the bones of a dinosaur. The gasjet which had fed the furnace, unstoppered now, rose up in a bellowing pylon of flame through the riven floor of the lobby. The carpeting on the stair risers caught, racing up to the first floor level as if to tell dreadful good news. A fusillade of explosions ripped the place....Flame belched out of the Overlook's five chimneys at the breaking clouds.

(No! Mustn't! Mustn't MUSTN'T!)

It shrieked; it shrieked but now it was voiceless and it was only screaming panic and doom and damnation in its own ear...

One rule alone governs the successful creation of fictional characters: despite whatever quirks or super powers or animal bodies their creators endow them with, they must be recognizably human. Why this rule? Not because there's anything wrong in creating inhuman fictional characters, but because readers the world over want to read about characters in whom they can see something of themselves. If Shakespeare had created a Hamlet who didn't care about being or nonbeing, who yawned at his uncle murdering his father and marrying his mother, and who shrugged at the suicide of his lady love, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark would live today only in moldy volumes lying forgotten in a dozen library basements.

To be like humans, fictional characters must sometimes die, even though their creators, who lavish skill and love on their creations, often don't want to kill them off. Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography that he gave Mrs. Proudie, the wife of the Bishop of Barchester, a sudden fatal illness only because he heard two elderly gentlemen at his London club saying that they found her boring.

Creating fictional soldiers creates a special case of character kill-off because in real world warfare soldiers often die sudden, random deaths. If a writer tried to bring all his soldier characters unscathed through a war, readers wouldn't believe the story. James Jones, author of the monumental trilogy of World War II in the Pacific, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle, faces and solves this problem with extraordinary skill and empathy.

Jones creates three central characters who continue through all three novels: a stubbornly independent private, a cynical sergeant, and a cook who cares for his men. Like Balzac's continuing characters, Jones' central three organize his trilogy, stitching one novel to the next. We follow the loner, the cynic, and the cook from peacetime Hawaii to war-torn Guadalcanal and back to the States. By their voyage's end, we know them well.

Jones, however, adds a twist to his use of continuing characters: in each novel he gives the three characters new names. The loner Robert E. Lee Prewitt in Eternity becomes Pvt Witt in Red Line, and Bobby Prell in Whistle. The cynic starts as Sgt Milton Warden, becomes Sgt Welsh, and then Sgt Mart Winch, and the cook likewise goes from mess sergeant Maylon Stark to Sgt Storm to John Strange. Jones invented the technique, he wrote in an Author's Note to Whistle, because he had planned a major role for Prewitt in the second book,but Eternity's dramatic structure "demanded that Prewitt be killed at the end of it." How then could he continue the character as planned?

I could not just resurrect him. And have him there again, in the flesh, wearing the same name. I solved the problem by changing the names. All the names.

The essence of Prewitt, Warden, and Stark continues under their new names in the second and third novels. Jones helps by giving the characters similar names, stories, and personalities: all keep the same rank; Prewitt and Witt both come from Kentucky; Storm gets wounded in the hand on Guadalcanal, and Strange is recovering from a hand wound in Whistle. Warden-Welsh-Winch's identifying tag is a grin that progresses from sarcastic to sardonic to savage:

Warden grinned at him. "Well, after all, it's only eight. You can't expect a man of his station, and with his cares, to get up at eight o'clock with clerks like you" —From Here to Eternity

[Welsh] kept muttering softly to himself over and over while grinning slyly at Fife: "Property. Property. All for property." —The Thin Red Line

Winch… flashed a freakish kind of cannibal's flesh-hungry grin at them. "I've seen it." —Whistle

How can Jones change a character's name and not change the character? Had Jones continued Milt Warden as Milt Warden through the trilogy, I would have believed that I was following one man through life. Changing Warden into Welsh and Winch makes me wonder. How can Welsh be Warden? They've got different names; they can't be the same man!

Puzzling over the paradox, I sense that, no, Warden, Welsh, and Winch are not the same man, but yes, they are the same character. They are similar men leading separate, similar lives. Since Warden didn't die at the end of Eternity, I'm free to think that he'd landed on the beaches of Normandy or held down a desk job in Washington while Welsh fought on Guadalcanal.

Giving his three characters six names may have helped Jones solve a technical problem, but for me the effect of his paradox goes deeper than technique. As I read and re-read the trilogy, I sense Jones teaching me both that we are unique and that there's more than one of us; that for all our differences, how alike we humans are! Beneath life's swirling surface, deep commonalities of family, race, culture, sex, age, and temperament join us to our parents, our children, our friends and neighbors, and to strangers we meet on city streets. Prew can die and come back again as Witt because Witt is so like Prewitt that by being himself he carries on Prewitt's essence after Prewitt's death. Prewitt is not Witt just as I am not you, but they share much just as you and I share much. We humans live and die one by one, and we are reborn again and again in each other. Thus Jones expands his limited cast of characters to include all the American soldiers of World War II: the few soldiers he names stand brother to the unnamed millions.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 27th 2014, 6:04 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Wonderful teaching and writing style of Michael Lyndon.
Wednesday September 9th 2015, 11:39 PM
Comment by: Lazarus Cadonkopf (Lawrenceville, GA)
I first read of the folk singing orange-seated, diversity, ridden subway. Toward the end, I began to echo you as the over- and underground subway slowed, "c'mon...". I decided I did not have time to support you and ask a question regarding your response. As I was marking my seat for a return trip to the identical subway and route accompanied by more time, I saw the header to this, (my opinion is not worth the price of coffee these days), righteous piece of "Artistry on Art." At least three to four seconds passed before I realized I had completed your piece, Professor. At that moment, all I could say was a four-letter epithet that shall remain in the shadows for discretionary reasons. Their equivalent stand-in might be described as a breath being held to the point of a necessary nudge. Exhale! An appreciated suggestion as I may have otherwise become hypoxic. I verily enjoyed the ride. Just one question. Did anyone get on or off the subway during the trip from the "Folk-sing," back to my stop, home? Bravissimo, Sir.

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