Those who elude us

Writing fiction is easy. Or rather, knowing our characters is easy. We create them. We know them better than we know ourselves (“ourselves” being the greatest, most impenetrable mystery in our lives). We give our characters the qualities and traits they need to fit our plots, and though they sometimes surprise us, they are still our creations and we can form and direct them as we wish.

It’s the pesky real people who confound and confuse us. Maybe that’s why so many of us turn to fiction: to find a more or less finished world with more or less understandable people within it.

I came across the passage below near the end of the wonderful novel A River Runs Through It that addresses this point. The father character is talking to his surviving son, who has become a journalist, about his brother who died violently, how neither could help him because neither could really understand him.

“After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? . . . Only then will you understand what happened and why . . . It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

It seems that what he is saying is that because you can never really know another person, the best you can do is to cast him or her in a fictional world where you are in control of motives. By assigning motives to the person who eludes you in real life, you are able to make better sense of what you don’t understand.

I’ve only read A River Runs Through It twice, but it’s found a permanent place on my shelf, and I intend to revisit several more times as I journey down the river.

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