On creating character
I’d written some 25 novels before I went anywhere near a creative writing class, and then I went as a tutor not a student. So I missed out on the conventional terminology – I still have to look up words like ‘unreliable narrator’ and ‘foreshadowing’ on Wikipedia to understand exactly what they mean. Most turn out to be tools novelists have been using forever anyway, without knowing the jargon.
There is an endless source of information out there on the web, much of it very useful, but some of it rather odd. When it comes to fictional ‘character’, it is supposed to matter very much that the reader should ‘care’ about the protagonists. This often gets misconstrued by today’s novelists, so many of whom go to creative writing classes: they assume that they ought to make their characters nice.
I care about real living people for all kinds of reasons. I care about some people that some other people think are perfectly horrid. You don’t make best friends at school with the nicest, best-behaved girl in the class – she’s usually a bit boring. You make friends with someone who makes you laugh, or sparks up your own ideas, who knows where you’re coming from, with whom you have something in common. Why should readers be any different? Everyone remembers Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – she’s spiteful and dangerous: people tend to forget Amelia, who is so nice and good.
Don’t keep your protagonists reactive, keep them active. Give them faults, the kind your readers can identify with. Give them terrible troubles, by all means – so we can see how they face up to them. Above all, make things happen. Don’t take up a whole novel making your protagonist learn a lesson, be a nicer person. Is Pride and Prejudice a novel about how wrong Elizabeth was to judge a suitor on first impressions, or more about how she snaffled the best man in town by being impertinent?
If you look on Google you will find sites telling you to make a character profile of your protagonists before you begin writing: thus you will ‘know your character’. It’s not how I would ever set about it: it’s the kind of thing TV script editors insist on – but that is so that more than one writer can work on a running script, and thus keep the stories consistent throughout a series. I wouldn’t have thought writing a profile for a character in a novel was at all advisable. In a lifetime of novel writing I have never done such a thing. (Which isn’t to say the novels mightn’t have been better if I had – just that it never occurred to me, anymore than would writing profiles of friends or family. The complexity of it would defeat me.) Of course, all novelists go about things differently. There is no one way of doing anything. But my training – and I did have a training, and a rigorous one, even though not in a creative writing class – led me to set about things differently. By the time I started writing novels I had had more than enough experience in the creation of character.
I started out in advertising as a copy-writer. Most ads in those days were little stories told in a few lines, and a big illustration above, selling a product. The characters would be stereotypes – there was no space for anything else – happy housewife, anxious girl, angry husband, man with headache, wise doctor, foolish friend. The art director needed two or three words of description to do the illustration, no more. When I branched out into writing TV commercials, there’d be a casting director. You’d task them to find a pretty girl with long legs, or a loving young mother with a cute baby – still only a few words of description, but still the stereotype, and the commercial was 15 or 30 seconds long. If you were very lucky you’d have sixty seconds in which to tell your story and sell your product. Moving on to the more fertile ground of stage plays and TV dramas, in which one was selling ideas, not product, I had a few more lines to offer in which to branch away from the stereotype, and offer everyone involved a guide to what the writer had in mind.
A stage play or screen-play is a blueprint from which everyone involved in this group activity has to work – lighting man, producer, props, director, actor – so you keep instructions as brief and telling as possible. I realised soon that what you needed to describe was how a character deviated from the norm. The casting director’s nature was to cast everyone middle: middle height, middle class, middle looks, even temperament unless you mentioned otherwise. If you wrote ‘tall’ or ‘short’ or ‘wall-eyed’ or ‘bow-legged’ or ‘bad-tempered’ they would oblige you: otherwise it was just middle. And that is what you do in a novel: if characters have normal eyes you don’t mention them, if they are startlingly blue you do. If they have a wooden leg you mention it, or if they have been married five times not the normal one or two. Otherwise your reader, like your casting director, casts ‘middle’ in their head, and gets on with it.
My early novels were novelisations of my TV plays – I had the plot, structure, the lines all worked out, I’d left it to the actors to develop character, and some very good actors at that. I use characters to work out my own ideas about what life is like. They represent different trends in contemporary society. They tend towards the stereotypical, I admit. But it’s deliberate because this is part of a fictional character’s appeal: the part the reader recognises, identifies with, the aspect the reader responds to, and so worries how they will get out of the situation into which the writer has cast them. Your character doesn’t have to be nice and good to be empathised with: he or she has to be recognised as an identifiable, noticeable individual, with certain personality traits.
I see the novels I write as fictionalised essays used to prove a point I want to make. I am by nature a didactic novelist, while joking away to hide it as best I can, if only so as not to frighten the reader. My characters exist to carry through a plot; I’m not bothering all that much whether they’re ‘rounded’ or not. I give them quirks and fads and foibles but I never let them run away with the story. They are mine and they do as I tell them.
If I examine my protagonists I can see they tend to be one quarter stereotype – as in those early advertisements – for rapid identification and recognition: one quarter myself – I am the one doing the writing after all, and autobiography can never be far away: one quarter a mélange of all the people I’ve ever known: and the final quarter is sheer invention – where I take the most liberties, have the most fun, summon up someone from the depths of the group unconscious who had no reality before. The character grows as the story grows. He or she can hardly be ‘profiled’ in advance.
I like to know all kinds of trivia about my characters, what they put in their fridge; whether they prefer showers to baths; how they get on with their grannies; the conversation between their parents when they were born and got the names I’ve given them. These things I write as I discover them, as I look inside their fridges, overhear their conversations – not before they begin: I am the fly on their walls.
I know the situation my character is going into rather than exactly who the character is. Then she – it is usually a she – emerges. She starts off is a stereotype. Little by little features and characteristics emerge. I look into her fridge and find out her eating habits. I look into her knicker drawer and find out about her sex life. I feel I am as much friendly spy as creator.