Last Sunday, I watched the “In Memoriam” segment of the Emmy’s telecast.
Sitting quietly, watching as the faces of many actors and actresses whose work I’ve known faded in and out, I wondered how many of the characters they had played on-screen had resembled, in ways big or small, their own personalities? How many times had a story line reflected their real-life choices and experiences?
During the montage, the face that stood out to me the most was Larry Hagman, who brilliantly played J. R. Ewing in both the original Dallas, and the reboot. Was he anything like that greedy, corrupt, unprincipled character that he seamlessly portrayed? According to every piece I’ve ever read about him, he was not.
But there must have been something in him that understood J. R., the man; or, at least, something in him that was so engaged by the idea of a character so preposterously selfish and egotistical, that his finest abilities as an actor were pulled from him without conscious thought or effort.
Is it the same for a fiction writer? How much of each one of us is in the stories we write?
When I finished reading the brilliant and complex (and lengthy!) Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for the first time, I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough to research the author who had written not only such a gripping and terribly upsetting story, but, perhaps, had created the literary world’s most unlikely heroine of modern times.
How could a man, I briefly wondered, write such an extraordinary female character as Lisbeth Salander? And then I wondered if it was extraordinarily sexist of me to even ponder that question. Maybe it was, but I didn’t intend for it to be. I was simply blown away by Stieg Larsson’s layered and often shockingly dark story – one that gripped me from the opening pages and didn’t let me go until I’d read it three times through.
I was obsessed; I don’t recall ever rooting quite that hard for a triumphant finish for a modern protagonist.
But from what part of Steig Larsson’s creative force, or life experiences, did Lisbeth emerge? If he mined small pieces from his life and the lives of those he knew or had encountered, how did he manage to fit so many jagged characters into one seamless, enthralling novel?
Talent, of course.
But, still. What I’m really wondering is if an author, any author, is capable of inventing a fictional character that draws nothing from his or her own life.
I don’t believe it is possible. To me, the real questions are how much did he or she draw from real-life experiences, and what were they?
My own journey from casual writer to novelist has been cathartic. I am able to sit down at my computer and write a short story or a full-length novel, and, through it, “solve” a lingering problem in my real life. Some of the issues I pull from my personal experiences are tiny, while others are rather large; regardless, when these issues find a voice on my page, they are generally so transformed that I am the only one who recognizes the original connection.
But they are there, inside the pages of my works, these pieces of my personal life, and are finally solved and sparkling, carried through however many paragraphs or chapters it took me to reach a satisfying resolution.
Taking it a step further, this thinking, I also wonder if the men and women on the pages of the best-loved novels of all time (or, at least, of their time) take on some sort of quasi-human existence, one in which they don’t breathe air through their own lungs, but breathe through the minds of readers they inhabit for days, weeks, months, even years after the last page of the story has been eagerly consumed.
And when a character is so beautifully, so lovingly and carefully written, and when legion minds of book readers turn to thoughts of that character, does that, in a way, infuse that character with some measure of a life force?
Lizzie Bennett, heroine of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, for example, exists. Okay, she does to me. And I’m not alone in this thinking. In the minds of so many readers around this globe, and for generations, she has been a source of inspiration and hope. Many times over the course of my life, especially my late teens and early twenties, I thought of Lizzie Bennett as a friend, an internal confidant, of sorts.
In the charming novel The Jane Austen Book Club, the question “What would Jane do?” stops each of the main characters from making cowardly mistakes and sets them back on path of courage and sanity.
The complex journey of being human, of living each day believing we know precisely what will happen and usually being only marginally right, is aided when guided by the teachings of fictional characters in our favorite novels—and they are teachings. Through them, we have an opportunity to live another life, to explore it, to experience its flaws and gems, whether or not, in the end, we would have chosen the same path for ourselves.
And when that writing, whether originally in the form of a novel or a screenplay, is acted out on the screen or stage by a talented, engaged cast, we are granted a second opportunity to experience life alongside the characters that have stood by us, loyal and immoveable, through thick and thin.
It is a precious gift, art, in all its forms. To those actors and actresses who brought so many memorable moments to our lives over the course of their television and film careers, I say, with deepest respect, rest in peace.