Oct 17, 2023
“Most of us would rather be a well-drawn character in a Stephen King novel than a real person.”
When I began writing David Copperfield, I knew I had my work cut out for me. To capture the panorama of life in 19th century England, I needed to invent dozens of unique and interesting characters: Aunt Betsey, Mr. Murdstone, Tommy Traddles, Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber, and of course, Agnes Wickfield, to name just a few.
Each of these characters, even Davey himself, needed a backstory and a constellation of motivations to account for their actions. Each character needed to be memorable but also believable, a tall order for any author. Nevertheless, my novel was well received.
Now I am starting work on an autobiographical sequel. I’d planned to follow the same plot line, but I’ve already realized that this won’t work. Two problems: first, my hero…that’s me! (Ok, anti-hero, if you insist.) I’m no David Copperfield. To the extent that my character has a backstory and a personality that explains his behavior…that character is not me!
Sigmund Freud notwithstanding, nothing accounts for my actions. Authors rely on characters’ backgrounds to explain their behavior. I do what I do. I was made in the image and likeness of God: “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3: 14)
Most of the time, my actions do follow well-worn tracks. I find it’s easier to do what folks expect. Until I don’t! My life story starts out as a real page turner, suddenly morphs into a head scratcher, and ends up dusty and half-read on the shelf of someone’s rarely visited library.
My second problem is you! Who R U? I need to know if I’m to include you in my novel. Are you really an alter-ego (a mini-me) or are you just a cardboard cutout rescued from the set of The Truman Show?
Have you passed the Turing Test? If not, I can test you right now. Luckily, I just bought a Manhattan skyscraper for this very purpose. So, please walk to the edge of my roof and tell me, what do you see on the sidewalk directly below? No?
What are you afraid of, a gust of wind? You’re a 250-pound fire plug and today’s totally calm! Even my flag is limp. No, you’re not afraid of some imaginary gust; you’re afraid of yourself. You know that you could just as easily jump off the edge of my roof as not. Probably, you won’t; but maybe, just maybe, you will. It’s a chance you’re not willing to take. The stakes are unaffordably high. That uncertainty is what makes a life interesting…and a novel unreadable.
Ok, you will? Great. And so you walk right up to the edge and give me a detailed report. Thank you; now I know that you are cardboard after all. Only a fictional character would throw caution to the wind.
Or… perhaps you’re just very brave, or macho, or have a keen sense of balance; perhaps for some reason, you are anxious to please me and so you comply with my utterly unreasonable request. Or perhaps you are a real person and just pretending to be a piece of cardboard.
As I stare at my still blank monitor, I realize that I am already embroiled in two of philosophy’s most intractable problems: (1) Other minds, and (2) Free will.
We’re in love with determinism! We love destiny, God’s will, and the laws of physics…anything so long as it’s not me. It’s the ultimate free lunch: order without responsibility! The Devil made me do it, so I’m not to blame, but boy-o-boy, did I ever enjoy myself in the process. Sin without its wages: ‘volunteer work’. Thank you, Lucifer, for the free ride!
So, there will be no Autobiography, at least not in the mode of David Copperfield. Perhaps I could cobble together a curriculum vitae with a dramatis personae, but don’t expect any explanation of my actions or the actions of any of my characters. We are most definitely not in search of an author!
Most of us would rather be a well-drawn character in a Stephen King novel than a real person. Being real is messy, unpredictable, and always disappointing. We’d love to have a persona we could rely on: “That’s just the sort of hairpin I am!” What better way to justify everything I do while taking responsibility for none of it?
We all want to ‘be someone’. Tracy Chapman, Fast Car, “I had a feeling I could be someone.” Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, “I coulda been someone.” Ricky, Boyz in the Hood, “I want to do something with my life; I want to be somebody.”
So, we measure ourselves against various fictional characters. Speaking for myself, I’m not as good a dad as Father Knows Best, as good a kid as Leave it to Beaver, as good a spouse as The Good Wife, as good a criminal as The Blacklist, as good a friend as Cheers, as good a dog as Lassie. Yet I judge myself in comparison to these imaginary beings; and of course, I come up short!
My celluloid heroes are smooth; they know who they are, their behavior is consistent, their lives have meaning. By comparison, I’m more of a hedgehog, a ball of sharp bristles, concealing endless contradictions, masking noxious self-doubt. My life is a meander, not a journey. Imagine Odysseus without his Ithaca – that’s me… and you too, unless you’re one of Jim Carey’s props.
I can no more measure up to my fictional idols than wooden Pinocchio could measure up to Geppetto’s idea of ‘a real boy’. I am not just ‘less than’; I am entirely ‘other than’. Less than? Ok, I can improve. Other than? There’s nothing I can do. I’ll never be a rhinoceros. But I can surely die trying!