Thursday, 30 July 2020

How do you invent a character?

On the one hand, I can tell you what I normally say about this, and offer links to numerous writers and pundits who have offered their thoughts on the subject, and I can tell what my creative writing teaching shtick is on this, and perhaps that is fair enough. How you invent a character, right there.

On the other hand, don’t look at me. I literally have no idea. Meaning,  I am half-way through my fifth novel at the moment and omigod. I find myself, on page 180 or wherever, looking at my joint protagonists (for some reason, novel five has ended up with two protagonists aged eight and fortyish, don’t even ask), and I have No Idea whether they conform to want v. need, or the change, flat, negative or open ended character arc. Worse, or is it worse, I can’t even make distinctions, I don’t know what their hobbies are, their birth signs, favourite food, or where they normally go on holiday. When I’m writing, they feel real, and they are doing stuff, and I have made various discoveries about them. When I not writing, I return to the various gurus I’ve consulted in the past, and panic. Are they driving the action? How much agency do they have? What is their Lie? What is putting this Lie under pressure?

I tried to learn ballet when I was small, between the ages of six and nine, I think. I was very, very bad at ballet. Not only uncoordinated, but fundamentally psychologically and emotionally unsuited to the task.  My motivation was the lure of appearing in the yearly dance display at the Mitchell Memorial Theatre wearing a lovely, flowy costume, this being the closest to being a fairy princess that a bookish speccy was going to get.  But between me and that glittering goal were endless rehearsals, mostly not even wearing the proper costume but just my boring leotard and the shoes that weren’t even proper ballet shoes with blocks. Finally, for my very last performance, I tried to focus. I practised, I twirled, I plied, I ran in graceful diagonals, looking surprised (you were supposed to be see an imaginary puppy), I raised my arms above my head in the exact shape that the ballet master modelled for us.  My father, with his usual wry detachment, observed that I was a ‘slave to technique’.

We need technique, writers, dancers, artists of all kinds, but do we need to be enslaved to it? That is the question.

Which brings me back to this: how do you invent a character? The most helpful response I can give is that there isn’t one way. Sometimes, a character appears almost fully formed before you even have a story – Baroness Orczy claimed that she ‘saw’ her most famous character Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, on an Underground station platform, like a sort of conjuration. Sarah Waters said the two main characters in her novel The Paying Guests needed to be capable of murder, and everything else about them followed from that. Vikram Seth based the matriarch Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy on his grandmother. David Copperfield is a proxy Dickens, and many writers have taken a similar autobiographical approach, from Francois Sagan in Bonjour, Tristesse to Sally Rooney in Normal People. In my first book, I thought I would bypass autobiographical writing completely and wrote the story from a man’s point of view, but actually, he was just the male equivalent of me.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, so if you do want some proper advice check out Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs or the relevant chapters in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, John Mullan’s How Novels Work or Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, published by Routledge and The Open University. For some YouTube thoughts I recommend Tyler Mowery’s Creating Characters Part one and two

Another piece of advice would be to read as many different sorts of novels and stories as possible, and let your mind fill up with them, rather than consciously looking at how each writer tackles this great challenge. Feed your intuition that way, and feel your way towards these people. I am reading stories by Alice Munro at the moment, and you experience the characters and their engagement with their world, rather than being able to say exactly what they are like, or being able to summarize their character traits. Or that’s how it seems to me.

And with that, I sign off and go back to the half-written book, and all those nuanced, nebulous, brain-twisting questions.