Well, yes and no.
Some people maintain that writers do create their characters --- although others maintain that said characters have always been there in the writer’s imagination, dormant, waiting to spring to life when the right stimulus rears its shaggy head. But even if a writer does create a character, the writer is not god of his/her world. Far from it. Not if it’s any good at all. Why not?
Because, if this world, first fuzzily envisioned in the fecund depths of a writer’s imagination (which sounds filthy, but isn’t), is to be anything more than just a miserable cardboard cut-out or a half-hearted crayola picture, it has to come alive. Which means it has to have the ability to get up off the Frankenstein-type slab of the writer’s imagination where it’s been assembled, stand up on its own two legs, and go lurching off into the night. At that point, the writer, once he/she is done screaming triumphantly, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” can follow this shambling creation and record its doings, but he/she is really no longer in control of it.
And that goes for the characters inhabiting the world, too. It’s an amazing thing when a character you’ve been pulling the strings for suddenly looks at you and says, “I’m not going to do/be/say that!” and marches off in a completely different direction than the one you plotted, leaving you slack-jawed with amazement and, truth be told, the same kind of parental pride as when baby takes their first steps unassisted.
It’s also why I always tell other writers that if they want to be plotters --- writers who carefully craft/script events out well in advance --- that’s all well and good; just don’t expect that things are necessarily going to go exactly --- or even loosely --- as they’ve planned. In fact, I would suggest that things shouldn’t go as the writer has planned... because our lives sure don’t, do they? This is really hard for many writers to come to terms with, because our culture is completely hung up on the issue of control. Perhaps I should amend that by referring to it as the myth of control. Because, as I frequently tell my students, this control we like to think we have in our lives... is a myth. Doesn’t happen. The truth is, you really don’t have much control over anything in your life --- except the choices you make, and even there, the success or failure of those choices are pretty much dictated by events outside your control.
So getting back to Mr. Capote and his statement... characters in our stories frequently say (and do) some pretty despicable things. Especially the villains, of course, but not just the villains. Even our protagonists can do and say awful stuff, and when that happens, it can be more shocking than when the villains do or say villainous things. After all, villains do and say bad stuff because that’s their stock in trade; it’s what they do, twirling their moustaches in maniacal glee while the heroine is tied down to the railroad tracks and the train is coming. But somehow, we often don’t expect our heroes to have feet or clay, life’s truth and experiences to the contrary. Either way, please don’t hold the author responsible for the terrible words or deeds of his/her characters.
After all, it’s really as C.S. Lewis said: “I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say.”
Which perfectly describes a great and wonderful and mysterious creative process. Thanks, Jack.
And Truman, too, of course.