Let me tell you about Harry. Harry was, in the parlance of the Wandlessian realm, a GNU, or Genuinely Nice ‘Umanoid. In my lifetime, I have known exactly four GNUs; perhaps you know one, too. A GNU is, as the acronym might imply, genuinely nice, and when I say “genuinely” in this context I mean consistently, concertedly, and constitutionally nice. He was nice to everyone, warm, kind, and generous with his time; he was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear to anyone who needed it, and he always offered those needy folk sound, heartening advice; he was well-loved by people of all stripes, who responded warmly and almost intuitively to his self-evident GNUminosity.
What I’m saying, in essence, is that I did not know Harry very well at all.
It may seem dismissive of me to thumb through the annals of my personal history and find precisely four GNUs therein, and you would not be wrong to think me a terrible person for doing so. (I am one of those beings who wanders the earth with a finite supply of niceness, though I hope I am sympathetic and at least polite most of the time.) I freely concede, in fact, that I actually know many nice people. I would argue, however, that those folks may not properly be assigned to the GNU category because I am somewhat more familiar with them. And that familiarity would oblige me to footnote and asterisk their niceness, noting various conditions and restrictions that might apply to its evocation and expression.
This is, I think, not at all uncommon. Even the most benevolent of people, if we know them long and well enough, will betray an occasional aversion. I know a very nice man who simply cannot brook door-to-door solicitors; I know a very nice woman who, in her capacity as a customer service critter, has come to detest a handful of customers. I know people who struggle to be nice at certain times or at certain places. We’re only human, or mostly so, which is what makes GNUs so special.
I am thinking about GNUs today because a writer friend of mine insists that a character in her newest novel is, essentially, Person X. The character is not derived from, based upon, or inspired by Person X–to her thinking it is Person X, an exact likeness, drawn to the life. She feels she did not create Person X so much as she transcribed him.
Because I am a terrible person (and that’s something of a persistent subtext you’ll find in these pages), I think she’s flat-out wrong. (I won’t tell her that, of course, because I am sometimes nice.) What she’s done, I know, is taken the observable behaviors of Person X, perhaps augmented them with what she believes are candid and revealing expressions of his essence (his words, the opinions of others, and the like), and then assembled them in a way that conveys to her the result with clarity and precision. My none-too-adventurous surmise, however, is that her vision is a fiction, that Person X is far more a production of her imagination than an apprehension of his essence. That’s no condemnation of what my writer friend has achieved; it’s a basic fact of authorial existence.
Even though my memories of Harry are fond ones, I have no doubt that there were facets of his character I simply never saw. Were I to try to characterize Harry, I would be utterly at a loss–I simply don’t know how a GNU might work. I could perhaps reproduce some instance of his genuine niceness faithfully, but anything beneath that surface would be an educated guess of my own manufacture. I could amalgamate, approximate, and simulate, combining and devising ideas of niceness to serve up a glimmering of motive, method, or meaning, but that would be no more Harry than this figurine (he said, gesturing to the figurine on the shelf above him) is Harry. The same holds true when I try to depict a woman, a Asian-American, a senior citizen, or a millionaire: I can fashion the fictional equivalent of a marzipan shell of the being in question based on things I’ve seen, but I would have to fill it with noggin-nougat, the stuff of invention (which is, in this metaphor, delicious).
This, I hesitate to tell my writing friend, is a peril of the profession. Every character we commit to print or pixels is a vestige of the self–a reflection, projection, or comparable emanation. They do not reveal others so much as they reveal what we believe, hope, or suspect about others.
If I believed she were genuinely nice, I might make the attempt.