Characters – the essential ingredients in any novelist’s store cupboard.
In fact, for novels that are character rather than plot driven, these people form the foundation and structure of the whole business.
For me, it’s where it all starts.
Not with a high speed, complex and action driven scenario that will propel the thing from the first page through to the last. Not at all.
My novels always start with an idea for a character. And then another and another intrude until, rather like gathering a host of admirable and fascinating friends together, something has to happen. They can’t all just line up and stare at each other until given permission to go home.
It’s the same with the characters that come into my head. A story, a plot of sorts, weaves them together, justifies their proximity to each other and allows me to decide their fate and fortune within the course of 300 pages or more.
My new novel, due out early Spring 2021, started with the character called Catherine Wells. I was at Hyde Park Corner one day 3 years or so ago, and a woman came out of a building and walked ahead of me towards Piccadilly. At the same time, she walked her way into my third novel, Miller Street SW22 – however pretentious that sounds.
And working now on novel 4, called The Odyssey of Lily Page, my protagonist, Lily, was spotted waiting at a bus stop in Roseberry Avenue in London. I was on the number 341 bus making my way to Islington in early April 2019 when I saw this woman and knew instantly ‘who’ she was and how central she would be in my next novel. In fact, in some undefinable, abstruse way, that complete stranger provided me with the entire premise for the novel.
And now while my characters in Miller Street SW22 are undergoing the typesetting stage of their journey into print, I am spending huge amounts of time with Lily Page and the rest of the cast of The Odyssey of Lily Page.
And the use of the word ‘cast’ is not accidental.
Perhaps all the years spent teaching drama has made it inevitable that I approach the development of my characters rather the way an actor prepares for playing a role. I have to know how they walk, how they talk, their mannerisms, what they like to eat, their taste in clothes, their hairstyles, any preference for tea or coffee. For vodka or wine.
And however much I might dislike some of the motives or actions of one or two of them, I have to understand them. Empathise to some extent with what is driving them. Of course, I don’t write crime. My characters may be guilty of duplicity or have transgressed in some way ( and most usually have …)but they are not physically violent. So it makes it easier to find a chink of connection.
Konstantin Stanislavski was a theatre practitioner who is known to all drama teachers and students worldwide. There is no space here to expound on his importance as a director at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – but for me the basis of what is known as the Stanislavski technique developed for actors to enhance their characterisations serves the novelist equally well in helping them create authentic characters on the page.
For a start, there’s the idea of what Stanislavski called the magic if. If I was this person, how would I feel? What would I want, how will I set about getting it, what do I need to overcome? Then there’s emotional and sense memory. What have I felt and experienced that relates to what my character is feeling or experiencing – what emotions can I recall and use to build the emotional truth of my characters?
For Stanislavski, the psychological realism of a character is dependent upon an actor tapping into their own lives for felt experience and emotional memory and the same serves the novelist so well.
So do some of his famous exercises.
Spend a day with your character, he would say to his actors. Become your character for some hours and see the world through their eyes. Experience their hopes, dreams and disappointments.
And observe. Watch. Focus. Be constantly alert and aware.
Look at that old man, that young girl, the woman in the cafe, the man on the train. Obviously, some discretion is needed here to avoid accusations of voyeurism or worse, but writers, like actors, develop ways of studying faces and gestures without being too intrusive.
At least I hope so.
And although I have a hundred notebooks to record such things, it’s not really necessary as the ones that are going to inspire and stay with me really do stick.
Like Catherine Wells now safely embedded within the pages of Miller Street SW22.
Like Lily Page, now wending her strong presence in The Odyssey of Lily Page.