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.