Photograph Courtesy of Louis (crartist)
Good writers invent, great writers steal. C.S. Lewis, and also William Sleator would base many characters in their fiction on their experiences in life. Authors appear to base freindships and relationships on what they have- or have not already experienced in their own life.
In William Sleator’s book ‘The Green Futures of Tycho’ the eldest brother in a family was a musician, and William Sleator was also a musician. The protagonist’s sister was a dancer, and his sister was a dancer. The youngest son was named Tycho, William’s younger brother was named Tycho. William took his memories of his siblings and weaved them into fictional characters. The parents in both this book as well as his other books Interstellar Pig and Singularity appeared to be chiseled from the same block of memories of his own parents.
C.S. and his wife, Joy
So also C.S. Lewis. Their similarities were that none of them had a powerful romance in their early formative years, and so would not be major theme in their fiction with a few exceptions. C.S. Lewis only wrote the most powerful romantic work in his wife- ‘Till We Have Faces’ (1956)- after his marriage to Joy Gresham. It was absent in his work beforehand, and the small sub-plot of Queen Susan attempting to find a suitable husband in ‘A Horse and His Boy’ (1954) was more high fantasy drama than romance.
William Sleator could not love a woman romantically, but there were occasionally positive depictions of family life with brothers and sisters. ‘The Last Universe’ (2005) is his most powerful where a brother seeks to save the life of his sister. William’s sister, Vicky Wald died in 2003.
The reason why C.S. Lewis did not have romances or even date in his formative years, was that he went to an all-boys boarding school as a teenager shortly before he was shot into the trenches of WWI. There was no romance in those grim British Pre-WW1 boarding schools, only pederasts both young and old (Surprised by Joy, Page 89). As an overweight academic, he did not have a positive romance with the opposite gender until towards the end of his life. For William, he could not ever fall in love with that way with a woman for other reasons.
However, Lewis did have a powerful relationship with Jane Moore before his conversion and long before his marriage. There are all sorts of interesting hints about this, however, I feel one of the most powerful shadows of this relationship is the centrality of the interaction between the White Witch and Edmund, and the Lady of the Green Kirtle and Rillian.
C.S. Lewis’s writings had powerful characters that were probably based on himself. Eustace Scrubb was a more powerful characterization that C.S. Lewis probably based on himself, as a young atheist boy. Edmund feels like an weaker characterization of himself, earlier in the years of his writing prowess- but becomes most Narnian fan’s favorite character. In ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ (1950) the depiction of heterosexuality ranges from the bland distanced view of Mr. & Mrs. Beaver as an idealized British marriage- to the sickly depiction of the White Witch bribing Edmund with Turkish Delight to betray his friends. It is the most powerful- and evil- depiction of heterosexuality in the first Narnian book.
The White Witch is an oppressive force, holding back Narnia and keeping it frozen in perpetual misery. She is an evil force that must eventually be overthrown, and her influence over Edmund is only broken with great religious-themed sacrifice that is painful to Aslan. Again with the later depiction of the Green Witch (the Lady in the Green Kirtle) in ‘The Silver Chair’ (1953) Lewis again goes to the emotional well of his experiences and draws up more of the same material.
Again with the later depiction of the Green Witch (the Lady in the Green Kirtle) in ‘The Silver Chair’ (1953) Lewis again goes to the emotional well of his experiences and draws up more of the same material. Here, a young knight is held captive underground, by the powerful charms of a powerful Green Witch. Her power is not the sweet pleasures of Turkish Delight, but this time has a ‘magic fire’ and music that tempts not only the young knight but also the heroes sent to save him. Their near-religious faith in Narnia wavers. Again this magic is broken, although not without pain to Puddleglum.
The White Witch, and to a lesser extent of the Lady of the Green Kirtle I feel we have found an emotional re-depiction of Lewis’s relationship with Jane Moore before his later marriage to Joy. We do not have to search for non-existent love letters between Jane and Lewis, there are none. The powerful and sad experiences of Edmund and the White Witch, and the Knight with the Lady of the Green Kirtle show us a high fantasy version of what was probably an exhausting and oppressive experience for him towards the end.
These relationships were oppressive and servile, loathed and yet unbreakable without external help. Lewis went straight from boyhood to the trenches of World War I to living with Jane. He didn’t have the checklist of human experiences that we in the early 21st century would regard as ‘normal’. No jumping of careers or going from romance to romance from him. Most of his married characters in his fiction had the blandish virility that comes from an outside observer, not a man who had ever fallen in love in a healthy relationship before.
So Lewis probably knew he could no more write his characters as adults with concerns both romantic and business-like than a blind man could write of the color of the sky. Therefore for the limits of his abilities, he had to create this fictional law of the exiling of adults from Narnia in his writing in order to keep the story in its best form in its earlier stages. By the latter part of the series he could write a convincing High Fantasy King, but as soon as he re-introduced adult versions of his earlier characters they had to be killed off in the Final Battle. They couldn’t go on, he had no idea at that time what ‘go on’ would be. The fate of neither Peter, Edmund, Lucy, or Susan was not to become an academic professor. If they were to have a fate to ‘grow up’ Lewis knew he could not write it at that time.
‘Till We Have Faces – Book Cover
And so Lewis must have had to let his characters go as they aged, because his strengths lay in the fantastic adventures and not in writing a convincing adult who could both work in a business or fall in love. Examples of his bland depictions of women include Tinidril in ‘Perelandia’ (1943) or Jane in ‘That Hideous Strength’ (1945). He needed to fall in love as well as grow in writing experience before he could write better female characterizations. It was not until he was married that he would acquire the experiences (and help in co-writing from his wife) that he could write hints at the fiery romance in ‘Till We Have Faces’- his best stand-alone novel. And it was not until Narnia was nearly done with that he wrote his best female character of the series – Jill Pole.
What meaning might we draw from this.
There is a quote- ‘Write What You Know’. Perhaps we might not know of fantastic places or adventures, but authors do know people. How do their life experiences affect their writing?
Stephen King in ‘The Drawing of the Three’ (1983) definitely was able to write long, rambling and detailed characterization even if the movement of his story moved like near-frozen molasses. He knew people and was a skilled observer of people around him. Writers can also put themselves into fiction, albeit veiled. I feel a good example of this for old SF grognards is perhaps Robert Heinlein. The caustic and philosophical professor of philosophy Mr. Dubois in ‘Starship Troopers’ (1959) as well as the determined undercover soldier/spy Baslim in ‘Citizen of the Galaxy’ (1957) feel like they are more based on an idealized version Robert Heinlein then anyone else.
Robert and Virginia
Also, writers often base the female relationships of their primary characters (or their heroines) on women they have known. Robert seemed to base much of his later female characters on his strange relationships both from the philandering stage of his life when married to Leslyn and the more powerful relationship with his third wife Virginia. I feel it was from his relationship with Virginia that he drew forth his re-used female heroine archetype which he fashioned into the characters of Star, Gillian Boardman, Friday, Mauren Long. Robert did not create the strange female characterizations of his terrible later years out of nothing, they were solidly strange and convincing and so very similar as if he were drawing out of the same emotional well of his human experience.
Jane was not the white witch, neither was she the lady in the green kirtle but Lewis’s emotional experiences with her were a powerful well which created such powerful villains for children’s literature. Similarly, Virginia Heinlein was not Star or Friday, but there is probably more of her in Star or Friday then we know of. Vicky Wald continually turned up in William’s fiction under different disguises. Perhaps sometimes fictional characters have less fictional characterization then initially we as readers might guess.
As an author, what they write in fiction often times comes from versions of ourselves and other people. Good writers can invent, but great authors take from memories and experiences from their own lives.