You start with a character in mind. Does that character change as you go along? Take Sophie’s Choice for example.
There’s a scene near the beginning of Sophie’s Choice about Sophie’s childhood in Poland, and she begins to talk about her father. I was trying to establish her personality through the memory she had of Poland and her father. As this monologue unspooled and I wrote it down, I began to feel as if I were listening to an actual voice. She tells how her father—a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—had become a passionate fighter during the war to save Jews from the depredations of the Nazis. Then the most amazing thing happened: I suddenly said to myself, This woman is lying to me; this fictional character that I’m creating is telling me a lie. This couldn’t be! I knew I had to wait for a long time in the book to reveal it, but I realized that her father was in reality a vicious anti-Semite. This is what I mean about the autonomy of the character: how characters become more real than real. What amazed me was that I discovered this about this young woman even as I was writing—this revelation came out of the blue. But I was totally convinced that she was telling the truth first, and I only realized in my inner self that she was lying. That to me is a testimony of the ability for characters in a novel—at least of the kind I was writing—to take on a life of their own. William Styron, Paris Review, Art of Fiction No. 156, 1999
We know how babies are made, for the most part, which is to say we know the mechanics of it. What we cannot grasp is how a particular life enters that evolving physical tissue. A reasonable person might concede that since we don’t understand how it happens, we are ill-equipped to judge when it happens. But that’s another topic. The fact is that it does happen. So it is with writers. Like Geppetto carving his wooden puppet and hoping for a real boy, our dreams come true when our wooden characters magically transform into real boys and girls.
It happens to all writers whose work blossoms from the good earth of characters, but none of us knows how it happens. It just does. And when it does, it’s like electricity hitting Frankenstein’s creature. Suddenly, the collection of pieces we’ve cobbled together draws a breath and becomes a being with his or her own desires, motives, and agendas. We know these characters aren’t real people, but I’d venture to say they are as real to us as the memory of a person. Especially once the work is complete. Proof of life comes when they are that real to our readers, too.
My life’s enriched by the many, many characters I’ve read and loved, and by the ones I’ve written. They are my strongest motivation to write. If I don’t write, they aren’t born.
“Sing, O barren,
You who have not borne!
Break forth into singing, and cry aloud,
You who have not labored with child!
For more are the children of the desolate
Than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.
Isaiah 54:1 New King James Version