Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sharing Secrets with Phantoms (a.k.a. How to Look Like a Complete Nutcase, Part I)

My wife (Princess Spendalot, She of the Shoes) came home from work the other day. I knew she was home because she stood at the door to my study doing her little ‘cough, cough’ routine. So I greeted her with the usual ‘Nice to see you’re home; fancy a foot massage and a glass of wine?’ stuff, and she rather pointedly asked me who I’d just been talking to.

I realised I’d been at it again.

See, when I’m writing, I need to ‘meet’ my characters, so that I can understand them; so that when I commit them to paper, I can show them doing what nature intended them to do, not what I or my plot needs them to do.

I’ve found that, for me, the best way to do that is to start a conversation with them. Unfortunately, that can make me look like a nutcase. Meh...if the glove fits...

I imagine myself out and about with them, at a football match, or having dinner, or (my preference) walking in a quiet forest with a stream running beside us. I listen to what they tell me (although, of course, it’s me who’s doing all the talking...hence the nutcase thing) and I make mental notes of how they talk to me, because that’s how I get to feel not just their unique speech patterns, but their attitudes to certain things. And with attitude comes depth – we start asking deeper questions about why a character feels a certain way about something.

Take Gaby Dunbar, for example. Gaby’s a supporting character in my crime novel, Brogan’s Crossing, but when I ‘walked and talked’ with her, I started to realise that she’s probably one of the strongest characters I’ve created. We went for a walk in the countryside – I chose Birnam Wood in Perthshire, because I used to walk the softly sprung pine needle paths there when I was younger, and because I find its fresh forest smells and cooing wood pigeons relaxing – and we spoke about her early years, and her relationship with her mother, and how her father died and the effect that had on her, and about her sister and how there’s always been animosity there and what's causing it.

I asked her why she chose law enforcement as a vocation, what her career aspirations might be, why she feels so strongly about meting out justice on behalf of those who can’t claim it for themselves, and how she sees the future: how governments are changing their attitudes towards crime and punishment, and what needs to be done to restore the deterrent element of any punishment. Gaby’s answers surprised me, but gave me a chance to go back over the character sketch I’d drawn for her and add detail; detail that (I hope) brings her to life and makes her someone who readers can respect and identify with.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t need to mash everything you know about your characters into your manuscript (in fact, please don’t, because there’s only so much backstory a novel – and a reader, however patient – can take); but you do need to know how your characters will react to, say, a waiter spilling a drink over her, or her mother chiding her about still being single and childless at 35 years of age. If you know these things and more about your characters, you’ll not only make them realistic, consistent, flawed and believable, you might just create a spin-off character or two who can stand on her own as a protagonist in a future novel.

I was having dinner with Gaby Dunbar when my wife walked in on us. Embarrassing but, no, I don’t feel cheap – I’m a happily married man. Besides, Gaby let me into a few secrets I’m fairly sure she wouldn’t tell anyone else – not even her mother.

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