Characters… and where they come from…

I’m still focused on the Start Writing Fiction MOOC (massive open on-line course) and this week we’re continuing to look at characters an where they come from. I’ve been writing all my life and finding, imagining, inventing characters – some have appeared in my books and stories, some are in some sort of character waiting room, ready to be called onto my page. Actually, that’s a rather nice image, of them waiting – some sitting patiently, some sleeping, some strumming guitars, some prowling restlessly, some making friends with others, some picking fights… I might write about that some time…

The course is designed for those who are just starting writing, not people like me who just want to refresh their craft. We’ve just listened to famous and experienced writers explaining how they find characters – Tim Pears, Monique Roffey, Alex Garland and Louis de Berniers gave an insight into their way of finding and developing the people in their stories.

Tim Pears (who I’ve not yet read, nor, I confess heard of, wrote In the Place of Fallen Leaves, In a Land of Plenty and The West Country Trilogy) comments that he uses empathy and sympathy – especially in portraying one character very different in every way from himself.

Monique Roffey comments that it’s a mixture of accident and design, conscious and unconscious – “snatches of people you’ve seen in the street  or snatches of someone you might have met… (or) had a brief encounter with”; she then writes a biography of her character with every detail noted down before she begins to write about them. Michelle was born in Trinidad and her books include The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Archipelago and House of Ashes.

Alex Garland definitely uses the idea of people he’s met – even if only fleetingly. He makes sure, even with minor characters that he gives them a distinctive aspect so they are clear and memorable – “you find a little peg to hang them on and leave them on it.” . Alex is most famous for his books The Beach,  The Tesserat and The Coma, and is now involved in films and film direction.

Louis de Berniers is probably best known for his book, made into a film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and his comments on characters really rang a bell with me; he describes characters who “just turns up at your shoulder like a ghost and insists on being written, it’s rather spooky, it’s a bit like being a medium.” That definitely resonates with me; he continues about the other type of character who “you invent more or less from scratch or create as a composite of various people that you’ve noticed or come across” – and again, that really rings true in the way my characters get written.

I shall be very interested to read what others on the course think of these comments. It will definitely make me think more clearly and carefully about the way I write, but I’m not sure I will necessarily change the way I write!


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