A workshop with my characters

Actors in period costume looking at scriptMy characters and I recently sat down to read through some early drafts together.

Big mistake. Constance, Robert and Pierre are now demanding rewrites and both Bram and Bosie are threatening to sue. May this workshop transcript serve as a cautionary lesson for all would-be historical novelists.

Workshop transcript:

Constance: In this scene, why don’t I see the obvious? Everyone else can see what’s going on.

J.D. Ellevsen: You love your husband without understanding him. That, and your kind-hearted nature, is your undoing.

Constance: I sound like a ninny. I don’t think modern readers will believe I could be so blind.

J.D. Ellevsen: I’m trying to develop your character without giving you an anachronistic twenty-first century sensibility. You are an intelligent woman, but your genteel education hasn’t prepared you for this. I hope to find a way to do you justice.

Constance: You seem to be doing better with Pierre.

J.D. Ellevsen: I’m not sure how that happened. I sat down to write about Robert and Pierre appeared instead. Before I knew what was happening, Pierre had started to take on a life of his own, with his own little tics and traits. He started walking about and doing things I hadn’t planned. I could see it all unspooling in my head like a film.

Constance: Nonsense. You make it sound like a séance and I know for a fact that you don’t share my views on Spiritualism.

J.D. Ellevsen: I can’t explain it. Inspiration? Projection? The influence of every story I’ve ever read or watched?

Constance: Humph. Another thing: why must I die at 39?

J.D. Ellevsen: That’s a matter of historical record that can’t be changed. It is also an important aspect of your story, which is a tragedy.

Constance: Yet you’ve had no qualms about inventing things that never happened, attributing thoughts to me that I’ve never had and collapsing several people into one character.

Pierre: Yes! Why is it, J.D., that you have conflated my personality with Robert’s? I am a man of the world. I do not share his naiveté.

J.D. Ellevsen: I’ve tried to include you, Pierre, and also Robert, Robbie and so many others, but I’ve realised that readers will have trouble keeping all the names and personalities in their heads, and will have to keep flipping back to the index of characters. There is the potential, for example, for the reader to get hopelessly muddled by ‘Robert’ and ‘Robbie’ co-existing.

Didn’t you notice that there were too many Thomases in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies? As brilliant as those novels are, some of the courtiers become indistinguishable, and the historical fact that Thomas was a very popular name only adds to the confusion.

Pierre: But I am a unique individual and a real person from history. You will make readers think I am really a mixture of Robert, myself and things you’ve made up. This is not true.

J.D. Ellevsen: I’m uncomfortable about it, too. I don’t like it when films conflate several historical figures into one. When you know the facts, it jars, but I don’t want to bewilder my readers with a huge cast of characters. They will give up. Then they won’t read about you at all, Pierre.

Robert: Hang on a minute. I’m still in this draft. Are you saying that you’re going to cut me out completely? That Pierre is taking my place?

J.D. Ellevsen: I’m not sure yet. It’s a possibility. It may become a narrative imperative.

Robert: So we’re disposable to you. You’re a monster! You have abandoned me just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creature.

J.D. Ellevsen: I’ve become attached to all of you, but I also have to consider the reader.

Robert: Perhaps you underestimate the reader.

J.D. Ellevsen: I hope you’re right, and that the reader will take in all the information and still enjoy the novel.

Constance: I don’t care if you include Pierre or Robert, but I object to the way you’ve made Robbie into a tragic hero.

J.D. Ellevsen: I believe he is.

Constance: Not in my eyes. He betrayed me. He should be one of the dark characters.

Bram: [Sternly] Well I for one intend to sue for libel. You attribute thoughts and deeds to me that you cannot verify.

J.D. Ellevsen: The historical record is incomplete; this is where the novelist steps in to fill in the gaps.

Bram: It’s slanderous, what you suggest about me.

J.D. Ellevsen: With the benefit of hindsight, and the influence of post-Freudian psychology, a twenty-first century person inevitably draws certain conclusions about your character, even if you can’t see it. Then there are the letters and the small matter of …

Bram: [Interrupting] It is speculation.

J.D. Ellevsen: Imagination and empathy are the novelist’s tools. Without imaginative speculation fiction could not exist.

Bram: Have you no conscience?

J.D. Ellevsen: I want to be faithful to verifiable facts, but I also have a duty to the reader, who must experience you as more than just a list of dates and events.

I must go where the historian cannot go. I must follow you through closed doors, enter your mind, witness your dreams, listen to your private conversations …

I also believe that there are psychological truths, emotional truths, truths about human nature that are best illustrated by fiction, where the reader recognises intuitively the emotional truth within the story, even if it never really happened. “Art”, as Picasso said, “is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

Bram: This is no justification for invading my privacy and tarnishing my reputation. Why don’t you leave real people alone and make up entirely new characters? Stop sticking your nose into history.

J.D. Ellevsen: This is an ethical dilemma that troubles me.

Bram: Perhaps you don’t have enough imagination to invent something original!

J.D. Ellevsen: [Flinches, then regains composure] No story is original. All stories can be reduced down to a handful of master stories. Every writer inherits a legacy. It’s how one puts the legacy to use that is important.

Constance: Have you noticed that we all sound the same in this transcript, Bram?

Pierre: Yes. We all sound like J.D.

J.D. Ellevsen: This is why I must rewrite and rewrite. I have to find your voices, create your verbal signatures.

Bram: You have put words into my mouth. How can you presume to know what I think and how I feel when you are from another time and place? How could you possibly know what it is like to be an Irishman in Victorian England?

Bosie: [Strides into the room] Hang Stoker and his complaints. It is outrageous, the way I have been treated. You haven’t given me a single redeeming feature.

J.D. Ellevsen: [Quietly] I haven’t been able to find one.

Bosie: [Colouring] What the devil do you mean?

J.D. Ellevsen: I’ve read several biographies and historical accounts and I can’t figure out why Oscar loved you.

Bosie: [Purple with rage] I will not stand for this! This is an outrage! I will drag you through the courts and have you sent to prison, which is where you belong, you colonial guttersnipe!

J.D. Ellevsen: [Muttering to self] Just like his father.

Bosie: I beg your pardon?

J.D. Ellevsen: Nothing.

Bosie: [Spitting with rage] How dare you suggest that I am anything at all like my father! I will have you whipped! I will have you put into chains!

Constance: [Getting to her feet] I can’t bear to be in that man’s company. I’m leaving.

Bosie: You had better find some good points in my nature or I’ll be nothing more than a cardboard cut-out to readers! And go easy on the exclamation marks; I thought this was a drama, not a melodrama.

[Constance, Bram and Pierre leave.]

Robert: I agree with Lord Alfred; you have a duty to develop empathy for all your characters.

Bosie: Oh, duty. You always have been a tedious little sycophant, Robert. This is a crushing bore; I despise metafiction. I’m going to the Savoy for champagne. I shall see you in court!

[Bosie storms off, followed by Robert.]

J.D. Ellevsen: Come back, guys! I’ll never get this novel finished if you keep walking out on me.


© JD Ellevsen


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