Creating characters in novels…
March 26th, 2012
During my six weeks’ residency in The Little Blue Hut on Tankerton slopes, I’m inviting guest authors to ‘drop in’ to chat about how they write. Today’s virtual visitor is Fanny Blake, whose second novel, Women of A Dangerous Age, is out on April 26th, and we’ve been talking about creating characters.
Fanny says that when she was editor (for Penguin) she almost didn’t believe authors when they said that the ‘characters took over’, but now she finds that once they’re up and running, they often do. I agree, but it’s getting them up and running…
I think names are a good starting point (I used to get first names off the mastheads of women’s magazines until journalist friends complained, so now I scroll down lists of baby names for that era). Appearance is number one for me, too: I felt that Clover in The Empty Nesters was somewhat apologetic about her femininity simply because she was so tall, whereas Laura could be shrill and controlling because she was so short and afraid she’d be overlooked. But so far, that’s not much more than creating a cardboard cut-out.
Fanny says that her favourite character is Lou, the heroine of Women of A Dangerous Age, because’ she stands up for herself and won’t be a victim’: ’To create a convincing character, a writer should know what makes them tick – their likes and dislikes; their attitude to life; how they spend their day; what they wear; what they look like; their tastes in music, food, TV etc; their worst nightmare, their ambitions and so on. What sort of family do they come from? Where do they live? What are their needs and agendas? Writing such a detailed profile of Lou definitely helped bed her character into my mind, so I’d recommend that.
‘Secondly, before I begin a novel, I must know the journey a character is going to take ie where they will be both at the start and the end of their story and how they will change over the course of it. I may not know exactly what’s going to happen, although I will probably have an idea of some key scenes, but I do know the narrative arc. As the novel develops, so does the character as they respond to the different situations they find themselves in, but almost always within the confines I’ve set them at the beginning.’
Fanny hasn’t based Lou on any particular person (‘there’s probably a bit of me in there, but our circumstances are very different’), and she doesn’t formally research ‘character’. But she did interview people whose lives reflected Lou’s, such as a fashion editor for Lou’s early life. Fanny also ‘pored over vintage clothes’ sites and went to vintage clothes fairs’, talking to women who ran vintage clothes businesses. One agreed to read the final m/s to make sure there were no glaring errors.
When I was writing The Inheritance I similarly had to create characters who lived in a particular world: that of eventing, so I interviewed people in the horse world, took out subscriptions to magazines like Horse & Hound and read endless autobiographies of leading eventers. It’s a good way of finding out what the rhythm of a character’s day is and what their dangers and disappointments would be. But autobiographies of people who are still alive are usually ghosted and have been scrutinised to the last apostrophe by a PR machine, so I don’t think you really get much idea of character from them. The interviews are more enlightening (you get to hear the gossip that’s not allowed into the autobiographies!), but in the end, your characters come together once you’ve put in the preparatory spade work…and then they take over.