I’m on Flannery O’Connor’s front porch. It’s eighty-five degrees in Milledgeville, Georgia, and I’ve strolled about the grounds, swiping at horseflies. Inside the home, there is a white, porcelain stove in the kitchen, an upright piano in the dining room, a framed and faded Sacred Heart of Christ image at the foot of the stairs, and crutches propped against the dresser in the bedroom. Nothing here is for show. The tool shed out back has collapsed. Things are repaired when there’s money. It is an especially harrowing place because if I were to identify the single work of literature most blameworthy for stirring this idea that I could possibly write fiction, plaguing me with a nagging sense of calling about it, pushing me to get an MFA, Miss O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, might very well be the culprit. Wise Blood mesmerized me. Here was a story about the South, a South that I knew, written by somebody who was also from Georgia, loaded with freakshow characters, yet the subject matter was human depravity, grace, redemption. Every story that she wrote accomplished such things and, in time—years actually—the need to write those kinds of stories took hold of me. Putting pen to paper, finally; it was not as easy as she made it look. There were inhibitions, fears of crossing some line. For some time, I feared the fallout of creating outlandish characters.
We sometimes limit our characters because we fear what people will think of us. We fear that if our character is violent that people will think we are harboring hatred. We fear that if we write about a pervert that people will think we are perverted. We think of those closest to us, perhaps our devout mother. We fear that our spouses will think differently of us, that we will be pegged as disturbed, that some armchair psychoanalyst will point to our stories and poems as evidence of our latent sexual deviance, amorality, misogyny, racism. These concerns are not unfounded. When Wise Blood was published in 1952, the Milledgeville rubes were appalled that a young lady in their town would write such a thing, and they went on and on about it as they swapped the book with one another in a brown paper bag.
Art is about confronting sensibilities, which puts you—the artist—at risk. Great literature helps us to see who we really are, and some people don’t want to know. We could decide to please those people, to make them happy. Instead of allowing our characters to be who they are, we could curb their behavior. And what kind of writing would we have? Answer: the kind lacking anything profound. Instead of authors and creators, we’d become behavioral custodians and literary prudes, but not artists; definitely not artists.
On the other hand, there is immense fulfillment in being shocked by the behavior of your own character because you allowed the character to take over your story and show you the story’s purposes and intentions. O’Connor said that the behavior of her own characters often shocked her. The characters in our fiction should shock us because they have lives of their own. Our task is to get out of their way, let them to be who they are—flawed people doing stupid things, repulsive things.
Allow your characters to be who they want to be, and your story will become what it wants to be. Then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd. As for the rubes, the prudes—they probably won’t get your work anyway.