Ruby Sparks, Fiction, and Child-Rearing

A propos of my recent post on my “Imagining the Past” blog (“A Real Tear Jerker”), last night I saw a movie that took my point to extraordinary lengths.

The movie is Ruby Sparks, which I found utterly charming. In my post, I wrote about the weirdness of feeling tears streaming down my face while writing the final chapter of my novel (or at least the first draft). How could I be sobbing over characters I had invented myself? How could they have come to seem so real?

In “Ruby Sparks,” Calvin Weir-Fields (a novelist so paralyzed by the acclaim his first early novel received that he’s unable to write another word) not only sheds tears over his fictional creation, he falls in love with her. And then she comes to life. Not in the metaphorical sense I was talking about, but in the flesh. Other people can see, hear, and interact with her. She takes up residence in Calvin’s house.

The movie is, ultimately, about the need to relinquish control over someone if you’re going to have a real relationship. After manipulating Ruby in all sorts of ways (he has her suddenly speaking fluent French, suddenly filled with a yearning need for him, suddenly intensely joyful—all depending on his own needs), Calvin learns to let her be herself.

I’ve certainly had the sensation, as a writer of fiction, of jerking my characters around the way Calvin jerks Ruby. No, I don’t want her to do this, I want her to do that … And presto change-o, suddenly the character does X instead of Y.

But while it’s true that authors manipulate their characters in all sorts of ways, they’re bound by the limits of what those characters demand. If Calvin had actually been writing a novel about Ruby, instead of just adding sentences to a manuscript in a locked drawer, he would have felt more constrained—that is, if he was really the successful novelist that he’s portrayed as being. You can’t just make your character suddenly speak French, or feel needy, or be joyful. Unless there was some reason for her to do those things, a reader would throw aside the novel in frustration. In fiction as in life, you have to let people be true to themselves. Otherwise they won’t ever seem real.

And in life, it’s not just romantic relationships that require us to relinquish control. We also need to, inevitably, with our children —a subject that, to some extent, is a concern of my novel The Mother Daughter Show–and it can be a lot more difficult. There’s a period in parent-child relationships when the parent does need to exercise control, because if they don’t, their children will almost inevitably suffer some pretty grievous injuries. So the difficulty is in making the transition from a relationship where one party is justifiably controlling to one where the parties are, if not equals, then at least fairly autonomous.

Just like Calvin, parents have to learn to let go, to allow themselves to be rebuffed, even to see the object of their deep affection make some mistakes. It isn’t easy to create living, breathing fictional characters—from a strictly biological standpoint, it’s a lot easier to create living, breathing human beings (although the labor pains are sometimes similar). But learning to stand back and acknowledge the independence of those real human beings can be more of a challenge—especially when we don’t have it in our power to ensure a happy ending.

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