Saturday, 2 July 2011

The making of a character

For a long time I’d had in mind to write a story around a guy I had known many years ago. Freddie was a compulsive alliterator, quoter of poetry and teller of inane jokes he must have gathered from the Beano. None of us ever knew anything about his background. It was as if he was only ever real when we met him in the city centre. When the rest of us went home, Somebody put Freddie away in his box until next time. And he was, at times, can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it sinister. Don’t ask me to explain that – he just was.

The difficulty was that so long as I was consciously trying to mould a character with Freddie as my starting point, it didn’t work. He didn’t come to life. And I couldn’t get a name for him. But then another character kept coming into my mind. An old guy who was a collector – a collector of books and jam pots and books and broken tellies and books and boxes and books. And more books. His home was packed to the ceilings with all his treasures. And then a newspaper photograph came to me from nowhere. An old lady and her very large son who had just been released after several years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. (The real culprit was at last arrested some time before Bunderlin was published.)

At last, Peter Bunderlin came to life. With his family background, his dotty habits and his crime. He wasn’t any of those characters who inspired his creation. He was himself, a different guy altogether. He wasn’t wrongly convicted. He really did do it, but that didn’t stop him being one of the good guys. It just meant that nobody could understand him. Except Martin the academic historian, Scobie the old lag, and Maureen the retired prostitute whom he set up in a rented shop.
I suppose that while I was writing Bunderlin I became the character. If he was the master of the slightly off-target quote from Omar Khayyam, so was I. I could come up with the not-quite-right stanza at the drop of a hat, and I could mangle a proverb to suit any purpose. And once I had finished the final edit, it didn't come quite so easily any more.

The main characters in my current novel come to life by a very different process. They are two women, a generation and more apart who have had to overcome the disabling effects of authoritarian religion of their family and abuse masquerading as righteousness from one especially nasty guy – the brother of one and father of the other.

I guess these two come to life for me through their relationship to Tom, the narrator-and-finder-out-of-what's-been-going-on. He is the former boyfriend of Susan, the older woman, and adopted “uncle” of Melanie. Well, that's what Melanie says. Susan's character has been fully formed for some time because I told her story in an earlier, and very different, version. But Melanie has changed and grown and at each stage it has needed drastic editing of the chapters so far written. How much more of this growth there will be remains to be seen. For The Snig's Foot is a work in progress – and the characters are all in the process of coming to life.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I am envious of those like yourself who do the research to determine a person as the story evolves. I take my hat off to you sir! Thank you for the insight.