Spring is here and it’s almost time to make a start on my second novel – if nothing else it will take my mind off what’s going to become of the first one, which is currently ‘out there’ in search of its destiny. For me, writing a book starts with character: this time the main one came first and I now have a ‘room’ of about six. At first they were very sketchy, now they’ve firmed up enough for the story to start developing in my mind. I’m nearly ready to set pen to paper.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who wasn’t very interested in people. I find creating characters the most enjoyable thing about the whole process: getting inside their heads and seeing the world differently. I love making them do things I wouldn’t do. For most readers, being able to relate to fictional characters and imagine knowing them in real life is very important. Readers often wonder how writers achieve this with people they’ve invented out of thin air, and I think part of it is by making them complicated. We’re all influenced by our genes, environment, experiences, beliefs, personality, likes and dislikes, habits, skills, hang-ups…
Most of you reading this don’t know me (though I hope to meet you some day), so I’m going to try to bring myself to life with a few scraps of information from these categories, purely because it would be a liberty to use anyone else.
Being just a quarter Irish is disproportionately significant to me because it resulted in my Catholic upbringing … I bet you can guess the rest. In the course of researching my first novel I accidentally attended mass for the first time in about 25 years.
I’m very tall but as long as I’m not shoehorned into a tiny theatre or airline seat, I don’t mind. My only regret is not being able to wear heels. People often think I’m Scandinavian.
I grew up in the country but I love cities. I get a buzz every time I go to the West End even after living in London for 22 years. Berlin is such a cool place it actually makes me feel cool when I go there, which doesn’t hurt. I saw Paris on a TV programme the other night and felt sick with longing to go back (it’s only been 7 months!) And don’t get me started on New York…. (tickets booked).
If I don’t have a book on the go, I feel something’s missing, to the point where I’ve started reading a new one at 2am after coming home from a party.
I like to have a project and can’t stand drifting along not achieving anything. The word ‘driven’ has been used…
I love wine even though my capacity for it is pathetic. It wasn’t always that way – before I had children I did wine exams and was considering going into the trade. Doing ‘Dry January’ this year felt really depressing and pointless and I still haven’t got back to being able to have a third glass and retain the ability to string words together. Not to be repeated!
I make fewer assumptions about people than I used to. Eventually I noticed that on the (rare) occasions I met someone I didn’t like, I often changed my mind later; in other words I WAS WRONG. It has hardly ever happened the other way round; I’m always meeting people and thinking ‘I really like you’.
Sometimes I drive myself mad being neurotic about sleep. Every few months there’ll be a week when I barely sleep and I become totally obsessive about it ruining my life – until the night I fall into an exhausted stupor and everything goes back to normal. I would love to be less of a worrier.
I like funny people and funny people tend to like me. (That’s funny as in ‘Ha ha’, by the way.) My kids will kill me for saying this but at home we mess around all the time singing and dancing to music.
Skills (or otherwise)
I am shockingly bad at maths, and in the interests of road safety I avoid driving outside London because I can’t keep my mind on what I’m doing (and am terrified). My piano playing is resolutely mediocre; I never seem to get any better and my 10 year old son has easily overtaken me. Maybe it would help if I practised more than once a week.
If I do say so myself, I’m a pretty good cook. My dream job would be travel writer and restaurant critic.
My love of languages is a big part of me. I’m the absolute opposite of the stereotypical Brit abroad who just shouts louder in English. I may not speak the language but it doesn’t stop me trying: I once managed two weeks in Portugal speaking a made-up mish mash of French and Spanish and I’ve held lengthy conversations in Italian despite not knowing any grammar or how to conjugate verbs. With less familiar languages, it is of course much harder. I’m not proud of this, but the most useful phrase I’ve ever learned is Fuck Off in Arabic. Being followed around Tangier for a whole week by a gang of men asking if you want to buy grass can do that to you.
… and one more
I believe in love at first sight. I remember sitting in the college library unable to concentrate on my work as I gazed at my heart’s desire from a distance. This went on for weeks. Reader, that man is my husband of 17 years!
Feel you know me better now? I was limited by the facts, and something I’ve learned from my mentor is that fictional characters and the things that happen to them have to be slightly exaggerated. Lifelike, but more interesting, more exciting. An autobiography isn’t on the cards.
Tell me about yourself or your favourite character. What makes someone real for you?
Next week (from 31 March) I’ll be sunning myself in Nice, charging the creative batteries sans computer. I’m looking forward to reading a French novel set there, Fourrure by Adelaide de Clermont-Tonnerre. Back after Easter with more reviews of my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012. Enjoy the holidays!
Thank you for the enthusiastic response to this post! Following the brilliant suggestion by Susan Elliot Wright (see her comment below), lots more writers have got in touch to say they’d like to write their own Real Character piece – fantastic! When you’re ready, post it on your own blog and publicise using Twitter hashtag #realcharacter (mention it in your post too), so we can keep track of all contributions and RT each other.
Isabel, what a brilliant post! I think you’re right that most writers are fascinated by people, and I’ve read these details about you with great interest. I started to reply with details about myself, but then thought maybe we could start a chain of blogs – I’ll do a similar blog next week, starting with a reference to and link to yours, and going on to give details about myself. I’ll end by encouraging other bloggers to do the same. If nothing else, it’ll be fodder for our natural writers’ nosiness! Just as a taster, like you, I’m a pretty good cook, love wine and would dearly love to be a restaurant critic. Unlike you, I’m quite short, 5”1”. I had lovely friend who was 6 foot tall –she wore high heels and big hair; oddly, neither of us really noticed the other’s height (or lack of).
What a lovely comment, Susan, thank you so much ! Your idea is inspired and I hope lots of writers pile in – if anyone’s interested, please see #realcharacter above. I really look forward to reading all about you and will help get the word out when you post (if it’s before I go away). BTW I have several friends who are about your height, and you’re right that it doesn’t really matter (except when standing around at parties, I find). What’s 10 inches between friends?!
I absolutely adore that you gazed at your future hubby for weeks in the library. What an awesome “how we met” story. 🙂
I’d love to participate in the #realcharacter blog-link-thingamabob. I’ll have to log on and check it out!
Thanks Erin, it gets better. I eventually got the nerve up to chat to him when I knew he’d been celebrating after an exam and he pretended he needed to borrow some bike lights to have an excuse for us to see each other again when he returned them!! I bet everyone thinks I write slushy romance now (I don’t). Look forward to hearing your story.
This is a cool post. A month or so ago I posted the template for a character checklist on my Tumblr for anyone to use. I’ve built it up over the past few years so it’s pretty comprehensive now, I find it really useful at the beginning of a project to really make sure I know everything about a character.
I think I’m also going to do a #realcharacter blog with a link back to this one. Sounds like fun.
Just looked at your template, Cariad, thanks for sharing that. I know many writers like to do an exercise like that at the start – maybe I’m just weird but when I tried doing that with the characters in my first novel it felt like I was killing them before they’d taken shape. Of course by the end I could do it easily and it would actually be quite fun to have a go. Really look forward to your #realcharacter!
Another brilliant post, Isabel! I love the juxtaposition of creating new characters and the “character” that is you! I’m thinking about whether I can do a similar one on my blog. I don’t have a lovely “love at first sight” story though! 😉
Thanks Kristin, glad you enjoyed finding out a few things about me that haven’t yet come up in conversation, although having read my book the first ‘revelation’ is hardly news to you! Do please go ahead and write your own post and don’t worry, the love at first sight topic is not obligatory – I’m sure you have plenty of other things to say!
Such a terrific post! I got to your link from another woman’s blog I follow and I have to say, your exercise is inspiring (and hilarious: Arabic linguistic prowess). Am going to follow your lead and do the same and will link via twitter. Thanks for the creative kick in the pants this morning!
Hi Monica, thanks for the lovely comments on my post and I’m so glad it inspired your own version which I thoroughly enjoyed, although my attempts to leave a comment were doomed to failure (often the way when WordPress meets Blogger, insane!) Love your natural and witty style – you definitely have talent.
These days, I make it a habit to always bring the book I’m currently reading, my little green notebook, and green-inked pen with me every time I go out. Like you, I feel something’s missing when I don’t have the three of ’em. It’s nice to meet you, Isabel. 🙂
Hi Addie, nice to meet you too, and thanks for your comment. Glad to know I’m not the only one who gets twitchy without reading material. I must say Kindle does make it easier these days, although if a huge novel is good enough I’ll still drag it around town all day.
Isabel says: “tell me about yourself or about your favourite character.” Nobody has responded with favourite characters in fiction yet, so that I will have a go. I have chosen two favourite characters (and role models?) from the English language literary canon: Donald Duck and Nigel Molesworth. I will discuss them from a European perspective
It can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that his year is the 60th anniversary of the children’s comic “Donald Duck” in the Netherlands. The first issue appeared in October 1952. Bound reprints of the early years were lovingly produced in 2002 and are now cheaply for sale as the publisher’s ramsch.(i)
The emergence of this journal had an extraordinarily unifying impact on Dutch society. The entire political and social spectrum in this, at that time, very sectarian country for once united in horror. The Roman Catholics and the Presbyterian Protestants TOGETHER were deeply concerned about its nihilist coca cola for the soul and Donald Duck’s unwed relationship with Daisy Duck; the Stalinist Left and Trotskyite Left UNITED in their condemnation of this journal’s American cultural imperialism, smuggling its cargo culture into the country under the cover of the Marshall Plan; the liberal intelligentsia and the backwoods conservatives AGREED that reading matter consisting of pictures and speech bubbles would destroy children’s ability to read sustained prose and hence the country’s literacy, if not the population’s capacity for rational thought; in short, Donald Duck hit the country like a cultural cluster bomb.
In the mid-1950s my sister and I were keen readers of this journal, which was included in a circulating “leesportefeuille” (“reading portfolio”) with a selection of illustrated magazines for all the family. The magazines were always a few weeks out of date and had to be exchanged after a week, but this was a cheap way to read illustrated magazines. The character Donald Duck was of course a revelation. He was the first ever fully developed anarcho-neurotic personality I encountered in fiction. Of course, he is funny, but at the same time, his tortured soul screams for the freedom which rational and organised society cannot give him. Michel Foucault’s magistral analysis “Madness and Civilisation” (“Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique”, 1961)(ii) exposes the impossible social context in which Donald Duck must, somehow, try to function.
Donald Duck’s inner reality, however, is better explained in Max Stirner’s 1845 treatise “The Ego and Its Own” (“Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum”) (iii) which rejects every form of social authority and offers an approach to human existence and which depicts the self as a creative non-entity, beyond language and reality: surely, a razor sharp delineation of the Donald Duck phenomenon! (The significance of Donald Duck’s language in this philosophical context is, of course, better appreciated in his cartoon films than in the printed comic).
The deepest truths about Donald Duck are, of course, found in Sigmund Freud’s “Civilisation and its discontents” (“Das Unbehagen in der Kultur”, 1930) (iv). In this seminal study, Freud enumerates what he sees as the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction, he asserts, stems from the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom. Freud points out three main sources of displeasure we attempt to master: our own painful and mortal existence, the cruel and destructive aspects of the natural world, and the suffering endemic to the reality that we must live with other human beings in a society. Freud regards this last source as “perhaps more painful to us than any other”. He then extrapolates on the conflict between individual instinctual gratification-seeking and the reality of societal life and civilisation’s contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Donald Duck embodies this conflict in acute form.
Even as a child, although I could not articulate it, I could sense the pathos of Donald Duck’s existence. He is one of the all time truly free yet great tragic characters in the canon of the literature of the English speaking peoples.
To be continued.
Part 2: Molesworth
My second chosen character in English writing was a chance discovery in a London charity shop in the 1980s. Nigel Molesworth is the narrator and main character in G. Willans’ and S. Searle’s great tetralogy ”Down with Skool” (1953), “How to be Topp” (1954), Whizz for Atomms” (1956) and “Back in the Jug Agane” (1959). Unlike Donald Duck, who is a personality from a world both before and beyond all history, Molesworth is a true product of the 20th century. Molesworth is the great deconstructor, who does for English education what Jaroslav Hašek’s “Brave Soldier Švejk” did for his Czech regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 (i). Both stoically put up with the petty humiliations, inconveniences and discomforts of St Custard’s preparatory school and the Austro-Hungarian army respectively – Molesworth with Churchillian contempt for such trifles – but, like unstoppable bulldozers, both sweep away all that is obsolete, worthless and no longer objectively reflects economic and social realities in their environment.
Molesworth, in his 1950s prep school St. Custard’s, chronicles of course the class struggle in its most authentic form. All other class struggle is derivative. A Marxist reading of the Molesworth tetralogy is however not unproblematic. Molesworth is clearly dialectical materialism (ii) personified – he is a product of the system in which he exists and at the same time an agent of its destruction. But is Molesworth a Leninist?
Both Molesworth and Lenin famously admired American automation techniques in manufacturing and “Taylorization” (iii) and Lenin wrote:
“The Taylor system—without its initiators knowing or wishing it—is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalising all thousands of opportunities to cut by three-fourths the working time of the organised workers and make them four times better off than they are today.” (iv)
Compare this with Molesworth’s plans for a post-revolutionary tractor factory at St Custard’s:
“First we go to the tractor factory where all the men are puting the traktors together. SMASH, BIFF, BANG, WALLOP, AR-UM the noise is colossal just like st custards on a wet saturday. Conveyor belts are zooming in all directions and there is an assembly line where chaps are bunging on wheels engins, paint etc also whistling ‘davy crocket’ and working out football pools. A modern english faktory“ (v).
Similarly, we have Molesworth’s vision of “Produktivity in Skool” with an automated production line for translating English sentences (for example “Cotta and Balbus love the sweet voices of the gurls” into Latin, with a sorter, an electronik dicker, an assembler and a ticking machine (with typical output” Attoc dna Sublab evol eht teews seciov fo eht slrug”) which prepares the sentence for final finishing (vi). Molesworth has correctly understood that the laboriously hand-crafted elegant Latin sentence is an elitist luxury product which might appeal to sentimental romantics like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, but does not cut the mustard when culture has to be brought the masses on an industrial scale.
Neither Molesworth nor Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov is of course a true member of the proletariat. Like Lenin, Molesworth believes in the concept of the revolutionary vanguard. Molesworth does decidedly not believe that St Custard’s proletariat (the scholarship boys he quaintly calls “oiks”) has developed the necessary class consciousness to initiate the revolution. More troublesome, certain episodes in the tetralogy get perilously close to a Molesworthist personality cult.
What cannot be denied, however, is that comrade Molesworth’s very early uncompromising and total rejection of the bourgeois orthography of the ruling elite together with his first steps in the creation of a new, class conscious vocabulary in the literature of the English speaking peoples is one of the great revolutionary and liberating achievements of the mid-twentieth century. In this, Molesworth is fifteen years ahead of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian theorist of critical pedagogy and author of the 1968 classic “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Pededagogia do oprimido) (vii)), who wrote for example:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Yet, Molesworth is also a tragic character. The iron logic of dialectical materialism dictates that when St Custard’s is swept away by the forces of progress, Molesworth will be swept away too and he will vanish forever with the world he fought to destroy.
So here we have two great tragic characters who, each in his own way, plays his part in the universal struggle for freedom: Donald Duck, the ultimate existentialist whose very humanity will always be questioned by society, and Molesworth, liberator of language and creator of the orthography of the oppressed, who was the vanguard of a revolution by which he himself will ultimately be annihilated. Who is the greater of these two?
iv Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972 Moscow, Volume 20, pages 152-154)
v Whizz for Atomms, in: “Molesworth”, Penguin Classis, 2000, pp. 306, 307
vi Back in the jug agane, ibid. p. 359
Thanks for these amazing comments Tom – Donald Duck gets my vote. I am convinced that you should be doing some kind of literary degree or indeed writing your own blog as I’m not sure the Comments section of mine is the place to do justice to what you have to say. For those who don’t know Tom, he is the cleverest person I have ever met, and I know a lot of very clever people!
Glad you linked this older post on your latest one. I loved the way you wrote about yourself – clever comments that made me smile and like you immediately. That’s good writing! I may describe myself one day on my blog, but I hope that my weekly posts about some aspect of my life (this last one involved a realtor, a contract, and a manicure) tells my readers a little about who I am each time. Cheers!
Thanks Pam, that is really sweet of you. I look forward to checking out your post (I’m obsessed with property myself). I agree that it’s good to get a sense of the real person behind a blog. BTW I’ve never met an American who says Cheers!
I have a good friend who’s British, so we both say “Cheers” and, my favorite, “lovely” regarding just about anything. :+)