“When Mrs. Dervain reached her hand out to me I thought she was extending a common kindness.”
That’s the first line of a novel I wrote. Mrs. Dervain is a central character, but I purposely revealed very little about her. I wanted to see what sort of person readers inferred her to be — likable or not, physical characteristics, and so on — based on the minimal information provided in her words, gestures, and actions. Those few people who have read the book seem to find Mrs. Dervain fascinating, even though they tend to ascribe very different characteristics to her.
I began writing this novel, abandoned it for maybe a year and a half, then came back to it. The other two main characters had prominent roles in the earlier fragment; Mrs. Dervain I introduced as a new character. I had passed the halfway point in the writing when I read again part of the older manuscript. It included an extended section featuring another woman character. I wondered: what if I turn this other woman character into Mrs. Dervain? With only the slightest forethought or planning I created a big piece of Mrs. Dervain’s back story simply by assigning her name to this earlier character.
Immediately I began seeing Mrs. Dervain in a different light. Now that she had been merged with this earlier character her gestures and remarks seemed to resonate more deeply, revealing greater complexity in motivation and attitude. But her deepened character resulted from an arbitrary, even capricious move on my part. Had this earlier textual fragment involved a very different story line, merging the woman character into Mrs. Dervain would have turned her into a quite different person.
Awhile back I wrote a post about “cyranoids,” — people who, in conversation, speak words fed to them via earpiece from someone else. The cyranoids’ interlocutors invariably ascribe a whole and integrated personality to a flesh-and-blood individual who is voicing the thoughts of two, three, even ten different people.
A reader could decide that I, the writer, should have last say in asserting what Mrs. Dervain is really like. But I was just writing the words, making it up as I went along. Editing tidied up some loose ends and eliminated some inconsistencies, but this was just surface polishing. I don’t know Mrs. Dervain any better than any other reader of the book.