On fictional characters, free will, belief, and identity

Over on Tumblr, author and psychology professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes posed a series of questions for writers about the way they perceive writing, and they really got me thinking. Here are the questions and my initial answers:

1. Do you ever perceive your characters as having any free will? Do you feel like you consciously control everything your characters do, or do you sometimes feel like they control their own actions?

I don’t ever feel like my characters have free will because I don’t believe fictional characters can have free will. I believe they are all a product of my conscious or subconscious mind, so any free will involved is mine.

I also believe that writing (and probably most art-making) is about bringing the subconscious to the surface. So while sometimes it may feel as though a character is controlling their own actions, in reality it is my subconscious pushing things up to the surface in ways that I initially don’t understand. Through the process of revision, I come to understand these motivations and can then use them or shape them as the story needs.

This isn’t something I’ve always believed, though; it’s something I’m coming to believe even now. Every book I write is increasingly about me coming to understand my subconscious processes and the reasons I must tell a particular story. In the very beginning of my writing (when I was a kid) I just wrote stuff without thinking about what it meant about me or my emotions. Back then, I was unconscious of my subconscious.

It’s been interesting to observe how my thoughts about the writing process have changed over the years, and I know it’s due to the fact that I’ve had therapy to deal with my depression, and also due to my study of Buddhism.

2. Do you perceive your characters as having more free will (or more of a “mind of their own”) if they are similar to you or dissimilar to you? Does the point of view you are writing in ever affect this?

No, as I wrote above I don’t believe characters can have free will. I also believe that every character is some part of me; some may be overtly more like me, but underneath the surface details, every character is part of me.

Some characters are clearer to me from the start; that is, I am more aware of their motivations early on. These characters may seem to exhibit more of a mind of their own, but since they don’t have minds of their own, it’s simply a sign that they are more fully developed in my subconscious. I can always feel when a character fully clicks with me. There’s a time before I feel as if I fully know a character, and a time after which I fully know them.

I don’t believe that point of view (first person, third person) affects this.

3. Do reader/fan reactions ever change your understanding of who a character “really is” (or have you ever discovered something you did not realize was true about one of your characters based on feedback from early readers?)

It’s always been interesting to see what other people think about my characters, but by the time a book is in print, I always fully know the characters, and my understanding of them doesn’t change with fan/reader reactions.

Sometimes during revision, a comment or question from my editor will force me to dig deeper into who a character really is, and I will discover things about them I hadn’t previously consciously known. I think that’s part of the process of getting to know the characters, though. I also sometimes experiment with making characters do different things to see how that feels. To me, this is part of constructing the character. It’s pretty rare that I know from the get-go who a character is. I do have to get to know them by testing them in different ways.

However, once they click — once I know who they are — my understanding of them doesn’t seem to change.

* * *

After I posted my initial answers, Jennifer added something that is totally fascinating:

"I never believe that my characters have free will, but I sometimes perceive them as having free will, in the same way that a person walking across a glass skywalk might believe that she’s perfectly safe, but perceive herself as being in danger of falling. (Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the term “alief” to describe this kind of subconscious belief-like thing that often contradicts an explicitly held belief).

"So I never believe my characters have free will, but sometimes, I “alieve” it. The interesting things to me as a scientist is trying to figure out what factors influence my alief."

I realized, after Jennifer posted her follow-up, that I’d skipped right over the word “perceive” in her initial questions and instead saw the word as “believe.” I’m not sure if this is because I came to these questions from Twitter, where I think some other writers were already discussing their responses and using the word “believe,” or if it’s because I don’t quite trust perception.

I think that “perceive” may be intended to have a more scientific connotation (maybe? I’m guessing), but for me, “believe” is more grounded in reality. I believe (ha) that perceptions are malleable and changeable according to one’s situation and background. Beliefs are also contingent on a person’s situation and background, but for some reason I believe that beliefs are more solid than perceptions.

Anyway, this is becoming rather esoteric, but I want to poke at the concept of alief, which Jennifer introduced and I’d never heard of before today but I think is incredibly fascinating. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on alief, which says: “In philosophy and psychology, an alief is an automatic or habitual belief-like attitude, particularly one that is in tension with a person’s explicit beliefs.”

Part of the reason Jennifer’s questions were so interesting to me is because I’ve had a lifelong tension with the concepts of “artist” and “art.” I’ve heard so many writers and artists talk about writing/creativity as something out of their control. So many times I’ve heard writers say that their characters drive the story, and they (the writers) simply sit back and let it happen.

Personally, I have a very hard time with this concept of creativity because it removes agency from the artist. This is why I react so strongly, I think, to these ideas. I agree that creativity and writing do have some degree of mysteriousness to it, but I also strongly believe that writers and artists are the source of their art. Their art doesn’t come from the ether; it comes from their lived experience.

To me, the belief or perception or alief that characters have free will denies the agency of the writer. Maybe right now I’m especially invested in believing/perceiving/alieving that I personally have agency because the publishing business and being a professional writer is an especially unstable place to be. I think I’m also invested in writers having agency because I reject (personally) the myth of the mysterious artist. For some people, that idea — that art is mysterious and a writer is directed by forces outside of her control — is comforting. For me, it is not, and it seems to glamourize creativity in a way that makes me uncomfortable.

Last week, I visited a nearby high school where I spoke to students about my journey as a writer. During my talks, I explained that although I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, it took me a long time to truly believe that I could be one. In college, I didn’t major in English or writing, but in Economics and Chinese Studies. I tried to become an investment banker, an editor, and a professor before I took the leap to try my hand at being a professional writer. It was a big deal for me, a major struggle about my own identity and what I’m here on this planet to do. It was a hard-fought battle to come to a place where I believe that I am a writer who has control over what I write.

So, for me, the question of whether I perceive my characters to have free will isn’t simply about the mechanics of writing; it is about my identity. I don’t know whether it’s this way for other writers. It’s been very interesting to think about it, though. And now I want to read a lot more about this concept of alief.

Be sure to read other writers’ responses to Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s questions here.