Writing Humbert Humberts

This is something I’ve struggled with for years: is a character always reflected in the author?  And even more precisely, is a morally starved character always a mirroring of the author’s own subconscious?  In the past, I’ve written characters who have startled those closest to me.  Those same nasty fictional beings put to page caused a widespread probing into my morals, my inner life.  But was that fair?  Is it common knowledge that a character will be a direct reflection of the author?

Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  In “Lolita at 50,” Stephen Metcalf poses the poignant question, “Why did Nabokov choose to inhabit Humbert Humbert, a pitiable half-mad émigré suffering from acute nympholepsy, in the first place?”  Here is a character tormented by his consuming lust for a twelve-year-old girl.  Did Nabokov himself harbor pedophilic tendencies because he was able to so completely inhabit the mind of a sexually perverse man?  Metcalf argues for the writing genius:

To inhabit a pedophile—and not just a pedophile, but a European pedophile, on an American soil Nabokov had himself grown to love!—was to torture in extremis his faith in the sanctity of the exquisite inner life.

Nabokov was nothing more than an accurate recorder of life’s dirty realism, and Humbert Humbert was a creature independent of his creator.

Not everyone feels the same with this topic.  What do you think?  Can authors separate themselves from their characters?

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7 Responses to “Writing Humbert Humberts”

  1. That’s a really interesting question. Whenever I write I seem to insert a little of myself into my characters. I don’t know if it is possible to separate author from character…!

  2. Anything someone writes is going to reflect their collective experiences in some way or another—but I’m not convinced that every character is somehow autobiographical. For example, I could try to write a story about underwater prostitution in Brazil, and it might suck but it wouldn’t reflect my subconscious. Nabokov was clearly a genius, and geniuses can do extraordinary things, like inhabit alien characters with full conviction.

    • By the way, you never told me where that white noise app was.

      • Yes, I did! Look at your other comment I replied to. I think I just said that I found it by searching white noise in the itunes app store. You know what? It would be so much easier if I just showed you in class on Thursday.

    • I agree. I think I was just really looking to justify my bad characters. Writing is a reflection of so many things – culture, personal experience, etc. An amazing author can inhabit any type of character (especially Nabokov the genius).

  3. You pose a good point. I think it’s hard for some author’s to separate from themselves when writing. Have you ever noticed that books by the same authors tend to seem like the same voice, even when it’s a different character. Is that an inability to separate from oneself, or a style of writing? I’ve wondered when reading Chuck Palahnuik books if he really views the world to be so nasty, or if his views separate from what his character’s personalities are like.

    • Ah, I hate that! There’s nothing more disappointing then when you find an author you really enjoy but all the characters sound the same. I’ve never read Chuck Palahnuik, but his books sound interesting. The test of a great author just might be if their books have different voices.

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