Monday, 28 May 2012

Notes on Character

To fully understand the genesis of a novel, you cannot begin with the moment the first words are typed.  A novel might have lived inside its author for decades.  It is often noted that first novels are often veiled autobiography.  This observation is sometimes nothing more than assumption from the reader.  Many readers of my novel, The Inheritance of Things Past, have presumed that it is autobiographical, that I am in some way its central character, Will Hargreaves.  Indeed, the comment was even made by one of the examiners in my viva voce for my PhD.  It is a question that has haunted the background of all readers’ exposure to my novel.

The Inheritance of Things Past

My novel was loosely inspired by a real life situation – the suffering and eventual death of my cousin.  I was not close to Ian Dutton – in fact his existence was unknown to me until just two years before his death.  His father, my uncle, had fallen out with my father back in the 1960s and they had not spoken for three decades.  I saw Ian only a handful of times, usually at family events, and in reality must have spent only a dozen or so hours with him.  His death was not even the first significant death in my family, as my grandmother had died in 1996.  I think simply it was that he passed away so young.  As it is, the real life of Ian Dutton resembles, in no fashion, the life of Will Hargreaves.  His father read my novel and commented that he did not see his son in it or in Will.  Their attitudes, behaviour, and life story are significantly different.  Neither, though, does Will Hargreaves in any way resemble me.

Will Hargreaves is born in 1966.  I was born in 1979.  Will Hargreaves is a career minded individual working very successfully in the film industry, co-director of a film company.  I am a writer, spending too long living in penury.  He has a best friend, David, an openly gay man who is also his boss.  I’m not even sure I could tell you who my best friend is; I’m not even sure I have one.  Will Hargreaves grows up in Oxfordshire, he attends Cambridge, he is diagnosed with cancer.  I grew up in Wales, attended university, yes, but have never been diagnosed with cancer.  The biographical details at no point connect with my own.  Will falls in love with a girl called Sarah at university – and it is true I too fell for a girl named Sarah at university – Will dates her for three years, I was rejected the moment I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out.  So biographically the life of Will Hargreaves is not the life of Ben Dutton.

“[The novelist] desires to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creations of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living, human creatures.  This he can never do unless he knows those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them well unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy.  They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams.  He must learn to hate them and to love them.  He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them.  He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true, and how far false.  The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him.  And as, here in our outer world, we know that men and women change – become worse or better as temptation or conscience may guide them – so should these creations of his change, and every change should be noted by him.  On the last day of each month recorded, every person in his novel should be a month older than on the first.  If the would-be novelist have aptitudes that way, all this will come to him without much struggling – but if it do not come, I think he can only make novels of wood.”

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography
Anthony Trollope wrote about the creation of fictional personages in his Autobiography [1883], and his comments have relevance to our current argument.  Will Hargreaves is a fictional personage, as are all the characters that populate my novel, and they lived and breathed in my memory so vividly.  I knew how each of them would act, or react, in any given situation.  It might be a clich√© to say this but I feel I knew them better than I knew myself.  So when a reader comes to a work, and if the writer has done his job well, the characters on the page will appear as real as anybody they know.  Here, the supposition of the reader comes into play: the supposition being that there can be no way in which a writer created such a believable, living, breathing figure unless the figure was himself. 

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