The writer Bonnie Friedman considers what it means to create ‘realistic’ fictional characters:
“People don’t do such things!” is the last line of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — words cried out by the scandalized judge after Hedda has shot herself off-stage. His words echo in our ears as the curtain rings down and as the actors gradually emerge to take their bows, and as we shuffle out onto the street and back into our lives.
People don’t do such things! Well, if the blowhard who exclaims these words had actually believed it possible that the stymied Hedda might do what she threatens, maddened by the asphyxiating, conformity-bound society in which she lived . . . all might have ended differently.
Do people do such things? I’ve often wondered, reading about heroically outspoken or shockingly rude or tin-eared or laughably selfish or otherwise outrageous people in fiction. Yes, they’re great for the story, but do people in real life actually do such things? I’ve often wondered about this because I wanted to write characters who confronted one another, who weren’t as nice as I was, who weren’t as cowed by convention, who had an edge, had bite – and yet it was hard for me to actually perceive such people in my life. And I couldn’t write them if I didn’t believe in them. I wanted to write realistic fiction. Why couldn’t I perceive such people if they did exist?
One thing I’ve found about writing is that if you ask a question, the answers appear. The main thing is to formulate the question. Life starts supplying the answers.
In this case, I immediately heard a doctor say to a nurse, “You dress like a clown. Don’t come to work dressed like that!” I grabbed my notebook and scrawled his words. I was sitting in a clinic in Iowa City. I don’t recall what was wrong with me. But I do recall thinking: “Oh, my gosh! People actually do say such things.” How could that doctor be so mean? How could he be so ridiculing? What did he mean, “dress like a clown”? Surely the nurse didn’t have a red rubber nose on (although in fact I pictured that she did). Both were down the hall and my door was open. A moment later the doctor appeared to treat me; he was a brusque, starchy person with a peremptory manner. All these years – twenty years – later, I recall him.
And just yesterday I wrote in my notebook something else I wanted to remember because it, too, was so strange that my sense of reality wanted to subsume it, to deny it. A man and his date slid into seats my husband and I were about to sit down in. “Why don’t you see if you can move somebody else over?” said the man when I protested. Rather than argue, my husband and I raced to find other available seats, which were vanishing fast. “What exactly were his words?” I asked my husband a moment later, and I wrote them. This man was a handsome-ish man who’d stood near us in line, and had given away the whole end of “Up in the Air.” Fortunately he’d said loudly, before doing this: “Did you expect that ending?” and I’d flung my fingers into my ears. But the man talked on and on about the ending, while I pressed my fingers hard in my ears and hummed. Now I thought: sociopathic people do exist! And they are sometimes handsome, and obdurately oblivious or purposely uncaring of others, and they are real, and sometimes even steal your seat.
Such people exist in my blind spot. As do many other people so rude or infuriating I automatically tell myself I misperceived. So now I make an effort to notice when I stumble across them or they stumble across me, and when I find them occupying my seat. One of the uses of writing, it seems to me, is to broaden our perspective, to wake us up, to end our innocence. And one aspect of this, for me, is to behold what a fabulous world we live in, with the most stupendous people living here with us, and grand stories springing up all around. How dull to be confined only to what we expect! I want to keep finding out what lives in my blind spot, what I tell myself can’t be true, isn’t real. How tired I am of my own limited vision! How eager I am to allow myself to see the unacknowledged aspects of my reality, and, alas, of my own quite flawed, loud, offensive, mistaken self.
I make it a practice now to record the unexpected, what makes me want to gawp and say, “People don’t do such things!” Contemplate the indigestible, the it-can’t-be-so, the but-people-don’t-do-such-things, I tell myself. Because I don’t want to be that conventional judge crying his verdict in amazement at the last instant. It benefits my writing to allow such characters in, and it benefits, as well, my vision of reality.
This is the second in a series of three essays Bonnie Friedman is writing for this blog this month. The first was “The Novel Terminable and Interminable.”