[“Whose Story Is It Anyway?” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on July 9, 2020.]
At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”
“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”
The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts writing his book.
But I wasn’t a writer then.
Before I started writing, I heard authors talk about their characters as if they had a say in the storyline. Interviews often went something like this:
Interviewer: Why does your character go to Oslo, connect with Norwegian relatives, and paint fjords instead of going to Paris to create haute couture and stroll along the Seine with a Parisian lover?
Author: Well, at first the character was going to Paris, taking the fashion world by storm, and meeting a soulmate, but when I tried to write it that way, the character steadfastly refused to get on a plane to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I’d listen to authors talk about characters and wonder, Do authors actually talk to their characters? Do characters visit authors in a dream? Is this some type of mystical, mysterious, transcendental, existential enigma? Then I’d conclude, Characters might talk to real writers, but I’ll bet mine will never talk to me.
And then one did.
I was writing a story, and my character needed to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Time to do the right thing.
My Refusing to Be Reformed Character (MRBRC): Nope, don’t want to.
Me: But your doing the right thing is the whole point of the story.
MRBRC: Tough cowhides. I see no point in it.
Me: Readers won’t like you if you don’t.
MRBRC: I don’t care. I’d much rather be memorable and get my way.
Me: Can’t you be memorable and do the right thing?
MRBRC: Seriously? How droll.
Me: But what about my story?
MRBRC: Excuse me? It’s my story. It’s about me, not you.
I gave up. My character did the wrong thing, and she wasn’t sorry. And to solidify her position, she mocked the other characters.
I finished the story and sent it to a local contest in northern Wisconsin. The story earned an honorable mention. The first judge wrote, “This story is professional. It can give the reader a look into the mind of an underprivileged child and how envy and poverty come together to affect behavior.”
The second judge wrote, “A vivid portrait of a girl who would rather steal than earn. Sadly, there are real people like that. I didn’t like her.” This judge said I developed the story well, but added that she hoped the girl didn’t grow up “nurturing her self-pity.”
Well, me too. I’ve hope for my character’s future, and even with her faults, I still like her. Would my story have placed first or second if the character had done the right thing? I don’t know, but I’ll never rewrite her storyline. In the end, I empathized with my character’s choice.
And I realized something. The first judge read my story as a commentary on poverty. The second judge talked about my character as if she were a real girl, who’d grow up to be an adult. My character, unlikeable but memorable, got under the second judge’s skin. My character’s defiance makes the story resonate more than her compliance would’ve. I can hear her gloat.
Since the debate with my I’m-going-to-do-the-wrong-thing-no-matter-what-you-say character, I’ve had other characters argue with me. I understand now what writers mean when they say characters speak to them, so if a character wants to discuss something with me, I listen.
I still laugh at the end of Cluny Brown but for a new reason—I get the inside joke. The script writers were poking fun at the writing process.