Monday, 16 July 2012

Starting a Character

I started a novel in December 2010.  I talked about its genesis in an earlier blog post (“Origins of a Novel”).  Now the screenplays I’ve written are out in the world, trying to find buyers, I’ve returned to the novel.  Here’s the thing: the few months away from it have allowed me to see it in new light.  It’s funnier than I remember.  A few pages I thought worked really well are actually quite clumsy (and unnecessary) and have been done away with.  For the majority of its 300 pages, though, ‘Adam Strauss and the Three Sisters’ works a treat.  Yeah, it needs tidying up.  A few scrappy lines here.  A missing scene of explanation there.  But the base, it’s solid.  Its walls are strong.  The whole thing works.  The titular characters work, their interaction is strong, and there is a real sense of romance, loss and tension between them.  

I want to talk about the three sisters of the title:

It’s interesting: they were inspired by three real sisters, albeit only very, very loosely.  If they ever read it, they wouldn’t recognise themselves.  My characters do and say very little that the real sisters would do or say.  They have entirely different personalities, world outlooks, and histories.  The only common point of connection is they used to live across the street from a novelist and one of them did one day knock on my door.  That knock on the door, aged fifteen, inspired much of the novels content.

So why did I use them?  Or claim to have used them?  Because when I write I need a physical model to get started: the same way a screenwriter might write for Johnny Depp.  They picture him and his mannerisms, they use their perceived image of him to get the role just right.  I use physical models for my central characters because it’s a way in, a cheat.  I picture someone that I know and instantly half the work is done for me.  What happens next, though, is the interesting part.  As I write my fictionalised version of this real person, the fictional version takes over.  By the time I reach the end of the novel I have to rewrite the initial scenes so the characters conform to who they now are, not who they were inspired by.

It is a little creepy, though, this habit.  I have to use people I don’t really know very well – if you’re my close friend, I’m not going to use you. If I knew you once, for a while, and you’re out of my life, there’s a good chance I might fictionalise you.  In ‘Adam Strauss and the Three Sisters’, Adam is a novelist and this approbation of another’s life for fictional ends forms the final third of the novel – Adam uses the lives of the three sisters (or at least two of them) – and it’s how they react to that.  Badly, if you’re wondering. 

I still live across from the house where these three sisters lived, and where their parents still live.  I see them coming home from time to time (they all live hundreds of miles away most of the year, living lives I know nothing of) and when they do return I don’t see them, I see my characters.  But if I speak to them, which I sometimes do, I see them, the real sisters.  This strange double vision between reality and fiction infuses much of my life – I live in this other world.  I prefer this other world.  But sometimes I have to join the real one.

All this feeds back into a question writers are always asked: where do your ideas come from?  ‘Adam Strauss and the Three Sisters’ was inspired by seeing one of the real sisters in a shopping queue and remembering the time she came to my door.  None of what happens in the novel is real, but everything could be.  It’s not the big things that inspire us, it’s the little things.   Seeing that little divergent path in a life and following it.  Discovering what lies at the end of that ‘what if?’ moment.  It’s following the thread into the other world.  Taking the other path.  It's about starting at a point in reality and changing something, sometimes even the smallest of things.

Left: Fiction                 Right: Real Life


Using real people for the basis of fictionalised ones might not be a method that works for everyone, though.  But if you’re struggling to get a piece of fiction off the ground, it might be because the characters aren’t working.   If so, it might be a good idea to ask of your characters what would they do if…?  If you don’t know, then they’re not working.   This is another reason I use real people as models, right at the start – because I can then ask: What would ‘she’ do if…? And because I know ‘her’, in real life, I can picture her actions and reactions.  By the time I’ve written the character's action or reaction, I’ve already begun sublimating the real person with the fictional person.  The process of erasure of the real world has begun.  The other world is finally living and the work is moving forward.

It might not work for you, as I said, but it’s always worked for me.

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