When I was a child, one of my most-prized possessions was a transistor radio. A present for my eighth or ninth birthday. Six shillings from the local hardware shop, I think. On days off-sick from school I would listen to Tony Blackburn (loved Tony Blackburn!) and the rest of the Radio One D.J.s until tea – or when the TV started. In the evening, while pretending to be going to sleep, I would try to tune into Radio Luxembourg. A signal so weak that it would come and go across the airwaves. Half the game was turning the dial to catch it.
I have reached an interesting point in the rewrite for my novel. A pivotal chapter in which the middle-aged male comedian goes to visit the elderly woman he has been teaching. She is now deep in dementia and unaware of what she has done.
Except, in the rewrite, it’s not a middle-aged man, it’s a twenty-nine year old woman. Which is a shame, because there was some great writing in the original – cough, cough. And the deal is, it has to go.
But I have found myself, as I walk the new character through a similar scene, wondering if I could just lift one or two nice sentences from the old version. Who would know?
So I do and guess what? The new character disappears. Not in a strop, and with no great fanfare, just…disappears. Holding on to the old version, I lose the signal from the new.
So, I have had to stop. Retune. Get back in her head and set off again. There have already been rewards in doing so.
If I have time and patience, creative signals are there. As long as I’m willing to give up what I want and listen in to what is able and willing to come through.
There is always a danger that when someone finds out that you’re basing a character on them, they may react badly. Yesterday, I told my neighbour about just such a change. Or rather, I tried to tell her, because she kept interrupting and saying, ‘Is it me?’ And then, when I’d finally finished, kept shoving her arms out to the side, saying, ‘It’s me! Me! Me!’ So no resistance there.
According to New Scientist, in 1999 the authorities at Schliphol Airport in Amsterdam had a problem. One of the most expensive jobs was keeping the floor of the men’s toilets clean. Instead of posting polite signs reminding the users to pee straight, they etched a picture of a fly into each urinal. The cleaning bill fell by 80%.
It is what is known as a ‘nudge’ after Carl Sunstein’s book Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. A nudge is something that influences our behaviour or thinking without our being aware of it. Men pee straighter when they have something to aim at.
Writers often use nudges to suggest to the reader that they should feel one way or another about a character. Bertie Wooster, for example, is an over-privileged waster. Someone who, if he appeared on Made in Chelsea, would be the butt of the joke of even that bunch of top-draw bananas. So why do I like him? For a start he’s funny, but even more it’s because Jeeves likes him. Jeeves is from below stairs, he is wise, and has good judgement. If Jeeves likes him, so do I.
TV and film producers cast people with particular facial characteristics to influence our judgement. Writers use other tricks.
When a boy soldier from Somalia grows up, what kind of husband will he make? I went to hear Adrian Lester talk about playing Othello, yesterday. He said the lines that had stood out referred to how young Othello was when he became a soldier: ‘For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith…they have used their dearest action in the tented field.’ Which means he has been killing since he was seven. The army is his family; his fellow soldiers, his brothers. Also, AL points to Desdemona’s reported reaction to him. That when he tells the stories of his adventures to her she reacts with pity, as if she understands his suffering: ‘Often did beguile her of her tears, when I did speak of some distressful stroke that my youth suffered.’ She gets past his uniform and straight to his heart. AL said this would have been a first for him, that he would have been used to listeners wanting to know how many he had killed and the details of the battle.
What I find interesting about this, is that AL has made up the last bit. Or at least extended the fact that it was what Desdemona’s father asked him about. But it enables us to understand the fragile psychology of a man of war encountering love for the first time.
I have heard actors say that if they cannot find the explanation for who their character is in the text they will make it up.
And what is the question they most want answering? Why is this person the way they are? Does it make sense? Can I stand in front of 300 people and convince them of it?
The challenge as someone creating a character is to make sure the explanations are already there.
Q. What colour are a character’s eyes? A. I don’t care.
Q. How tall is character X? A. Unless they are nine-feet tall or can limbo under a door without effort, it doesn’t matter much to me.
Q. What do they do? A. Better, but in a lot of cases I could get by without knowing.
Seriously, I have friends I have known for 30 years and I could not tell you what colour their eyes are, or how tall they are (in feet and inches), and I am often stumped when people ask what they do for a living. This could be a boy-thing, of course.
What I do care about is whether they make me laugh, or if they’re always early or late, or they odd things they do in restaurants.
Questionnaires are sometimes taught as a good way to create a character, but I struggle. It’s not just that I can’t answer the questions, it’s the sense that I’m probably not a good writer if I can’t.
I have since found that it is enough to start with a general sense of a character and see what develops. It could be suggested that I create a questionnaire to include the laughter, lateness, and restaurant behaviour; but the interesting characteristics are different for each character, and tend to emerge in the writing.
The most useful bit of advice I heard was to use the questionnaire only after the first draft. This makes sense. But I have since discovered that it is more useful to me to interview the characters. However, this post is long enough already, so I’ll leave that to another one.
With the limited number of words available in a synopsis characters often get reduced to a three word contraction X-but-Y. Some of mine have included, ‘ballsy but vulnerable’, ‘polite but determined’, ‘kind but neurotic’. Don Quixote might be ‘intelligent but mad’; Hamlet’s father, ‘angry but dead’; and if David Cameron were a fictional character, ‘be-suited but pink’.
Have a go.
When I was a teenager my father wrote a novel in which he included pen portraits of us. I was depicted as an American kid who said, ‘Hi!’ a lot. A few years later my sister wrote a story which included a character called Paul, who was strangely similar to me. I said to her, ‘Try writing fiction.’ But since starting to write for myself this particular dog has come back to bite me in the bum. I notice in a couple of the posts that I have said that I am writing a character based on someone I once knew, and later that I could not just take someone I had met in real life and put them in a story. So what is the truth? I don’t know. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m struggling with that particular character. The more real she seems the less she behaves like a real character; the further away I take her, the more she loses vitality. Jack Rosenthal said that as soon as you put too much fact in a story it starts to spiral downwards; but if you can put it at one remove then in spirals upwards. Certainly, in most of the characters I have written I recognise where they have come from, but they are not 100% portraits.