Bringing characters to life – not quite literally…

MacbookIt’s a very strange thing, being a novelist. You give life to people who don’t actually exist… It’s a bit like being a parent except that, in that case, the person you give life to is a flesh-and-blood, breathing, demanding being, whereas the characters in your novel no longer exist once you close your laptop lid…

Except that, of course, they do. They hang around inside your head. They talk to you in the middle of the night. They even tell you what’s going to happen in your novel, for goodness’ sake!

I have written creatively on and off all of my adult life. But it was only when I started woman writingwriting seriously, in a more focussed, structured, conscious way, that I discovered how very “real” invented characters can turn out to be. I don’t know if all novelists find this, but I rather imagine that many of them do.

In my own case, the way I write my characters – or at least the main narrator characters – is very consciously intimate. I like to have a number of narrators, who take it in turn (though not rigidly) to “relate” their part of the story, so that each chapter is told entirely from one character’s point of view. This is the style I find myself falling into with each new novel. In my Meonbridge Chronicles, including the recently published Fortune’s Wheel, I write in the past tense, third person – close third person, I think it would be called.

In my as-yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for the first time, I tried writing in the first person and the present tense, thinking it would bring greater intimacy. John Mullan has said that this style has the effect of  “replicating the immediacy of experience” (How Novels Work, p.72). And, in fact, I felt that, for The Nature of Things, the first person present did work well, as it seemed really immediate and engaging, which was what I wanted to achieve – capturing the characters’ voices in a way that might enable readers to feel they were inside their heads – or, indeed, were them. In truth, though, I agonised over that decision, if only because I had read so often of readers who “hated” first person present, and I feared that I might alienate potential readers. But I did it anyway, simply because – for that particular book – it felt right. Only time, and publication, will tell if it was the correct decision! But it was an experiment – one that I think worked well – but nonetheless I am sticking with the  third person past for all the Meonbridge Chronicles.

medieval women talkingPerson and tense aside, my narrative style demands that my characters sometimes talk to the reader about what they are thinking and feeling, about their anxieties and their dreams. I’m not suggesting that there is anything unusual in this sort of introspection – this “inner dialogue” – because it’s a great way of developing fully-rounded, complex characters, and writers of every genre use it, though some writers are a great deal more introspective than others. I’m sure I’m among the former. And I wonder to what extent the intimacy of the writing style an author uses actually contributes to the sense of intimacy that she develops with her characters?

Anyway, where is this is all leading? What I really set out to say in this blog post is this…

It is interesting to contemplate how it is that a character evolves from being just a name with a set of invented features and traits into a corporeal-seeming person with thoughts and feelings, worries and aspirations? And how does that person then seem to acquire sufficient “agency” to determine events in the novel that I have created?

Perhaps it’s worth me explaining how I create – no, give life to – my characters…

Once I have an underlying premise and a setting for the novel, a few characters somehow present themselves to me, although I’m not quite sure how that happens. Generally, at the early stage, they are rather vague, 2-D, not much rounded or fleshed out. They quickly enough acquire a name (although it might well change) and a set of physical characteristics, and I know their family relationships, but possibly little of their friendships or antipathies. Before I start writing a draft of the novel, alongside the broad outline of the whole story that I always write, I also flesh out my characters – or at least the narrator characters – by writing a profile for each of them. This will include obvious things such as what they look like, what they do for a living, where/how they live, their families and friends and so on. But, most importantly, also my initial thoughts about their anxieties and motivations. I do write profiles for minor characters too – my novels tend to have a large cast – although they are generally not quite as detailed, or as intimate, as for the main ones.

Medieval woman writingI find that writing a few paragraphs or more of an imagined journal for each main character works quite well too (even though, of course, most of my fourteenth century characters wouldn’t be able to write such a thing). It helps me to see those anxieties and motivations through their eyes, and also to build a picture of their relationships – good and bad – with other characters.

As I write the first draft of the novel, I consult the character profiles as often as I need to, adjusting them where necessary as my acquaintance with, and understanding of, the characters develop. I don’t set out knowing all of their innermost thoughts and feelings, but find that they emerge little by little as the story proceeds, just as you gradually learn about a real friend’s thoughts and feelings as your relationship with them develops.

Theatre stage
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 387, fol.3r

As I write, I do of course put words into my characters’ mouths, and thoughts into their heads, and I move them about on the stage I have set, in the role that I have planned for them.

I should just say that, right now, I am writing the first of a number of sequels to my published novel, Fortune’s Wheel. What this means for the characters is that I already know some of them quite well – including, for this first sequel, all the main narrator characters. Even so, I have still reviewed, and indeed updated, the profiles I wrote for those characters for Fortune’s Wheel. Because, although they must of course remain essentially the same people, with a new storyline, a fresh set of events, and indeed the passage of time, they will experience new anxieties and motivations, and perhaps interact with different characters. Intriguingly, new sides to their personality or temperament might even be revealed…

I’m pretty sure that, as I write the novel, for a while at least, the characters do what I say. But then, perhaps without much warning, I realise that I’m writing something that I hadn’t really planned – typically, a passage of dialogue, or one of those introspections – that will almost certainly change some aspect of the story. The characters, it seems, have become strong enough – real enough – to decide for themselves what to do or say or think, rather than simply letting me decide for them. I mustn’t overstate the case – they don’t completely take over. But they do seem to take on a sufficiently real existence to enable them to share the telling of their story. Can you believe it? Well, I never would have, had I not experienced it.

But I have read about this phenomenon many times in authors’ blogs and articles, writers who say that their characters sometimes do seem to take over and direct proceedings. So I know that I’m in good company with other novelists, although some people do insist it’s all hogwash and those authors are letting their imaginations run  away with them…

Dianne DoubtfireHowever, in her short but excellent little book of thirty-plus years ago, The Craft of Novel-Writing, Dianne Doubtfire said:

“Sometimes a character becomes so real that he refuses to do what you have planned for him. When this happens, don’t coerce him; it means you have created a real person with a will of his own and this is a marvellous moment in any novelist’s life.”

And that is what I think. I don’t really believe that novel-writing is an obscure “mystery”, so much as a craft that needs time and practice. But I do feel that, when my characters somehow become people, real enough to make their views and innermost thoughts quite plain, I have stumbled across a moment of mystery, and even magic, in my novel-writing life, and that is indeed a marvellous thing.

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