Whether we like it or not, we assume a face, a persona, to meet the faces we meet. When we talk to someone we know or are acquainted with in the street or around a dinner table, we think we have a clear idea of what they are expecting of us. How do we think we know? From how we behaved with them on previous occasions, and how they behaved with us.
With a particular person we feel they are expecting us to be witty, with another intellectual, with another gossipy. And with certain exasperating people we know it’s best to stay silent, allowing them to say whatever it is they feel the need to get off their chests – past experience tells us there is little point in attempting to contribute anything, as they have no capacity to listen. They lack the insight to understand that asking questions of us and responding will set in motion a dialogue, an exchange. It’s this exchange that makes a conversation enjoyable, fruitful, and ultimately worthwhile.
The philosopher William James said that ‘whenever two people meet together there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is’. Because many of us lack the self-knowledge to recognize this complexity of competing personas, we suffer constant self-delusion – in love, in close friendships, and in casual encounters with acquaintances. We believe we truly know another person. Yet we also know that the other person does not, and never can, truly know us. Conveniently, we forget that they, too, are adopting a persona to meet us.
Seeing ourselves as others see us would doubtless confirm our worst suspicions – not about ourselves and our own true natures, of course – but about them. We would put their boorish un-understanding of us down to their prejudices and insensitivity. Yet, in truth, most of us are not seeking intense self-knowledge; it would be too painful to bear. As T S Eliot says in the ‘Four Quartets’, ‘human kind cannot bear too much reality’.
The psychologist R D Laing puts it this way: ‘I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will experience your experience of me. Just as you cannot experience my experience of you’. The result? We remain invisible to one another, and conversation turns into the form of dislocated, opaque dialogue Samuel Beckett the playwright wrote.
How does this relate to writing? Novelists create characters. Before we begin a novel we decide whether our characters are humble, arrogant, wear baggy jumpers, or walk with a limp; whether they enjoy watching snooker, collecting matchboxes, or reading Proust. Yet even after these decisions are made our characters can and almost certainly will move, act and speak like clockwork toys. They need another more subtle element to bring them to life.
What is this something? A writer colleague said that he became truly excited by the story he was telling when his main character suddenly started to misbehave, to fail to act in the way he had planned and was expecting. Not a single one of us behaves logically or says the appropriate thing all the time, which is why the news startles us every day, and why we often say some of what is reported in the papers and on the TV couldn’t be invented. When the unexpected in a novel becomes the norm the act of writing is exhilarating, because it is that much closer to real life. When it fails to happen it is painful and frustrating.
Writing a novel does in some way contravene what R D Laing says. You do experience your characters’ experience of experiencing people and events. When it is going well the writer does, in some subtle way, become his or her characters. Some writers call it ‘finding the voice’. It is this up to a point, but I believe the process to be far more elusive. You find yourself thinking like your characters not just when you are writing your novel, but when you are out shopping or walking the dog. This ‘transference’ generates a welter of ideas and forward movement, and the novel moves in directions you had not anticipated, and starts to mirror real life.