On Being A Professional Writer No.4: Creating Characters
Classics are good for you, like losing weight and eating vegetables, which is why no child wants to read them. But you don’t just learn from the classics. I learned a lot from reading ridiculously square-jawed adventures as a child, particularly the stories of Jules Verne and virtually lost novels like ‘Coral Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, but I learned as much from sixties television. ‘The Prisoner’ was influential even though the series was very short-lived. ‘The Avengers’ was not only long-running, it specialised in eerie scenarios that seemingly defied explanation. As a consequence I would try to outguess them and write my own plots before the hour was up.
The great strength of Dickens is characterisation, of course, but it’s plots that most genre writers tend to obsess about. In many of the best books I’ve read hardly anything happens, but the characters stay with you. A great character in a weak plot is still preferable to a weak character in a great plot.
Balancing character and plot is a trick I’ve only properly learned in recent times. For too many years I neatly hid my characterisation deficiencies with jokes and smooth writing, but the Bryant & May series forced me to reconsider how I approached my work. In a way, it really doesn’t matter whodunnit so long as the reading journey remains true to the characters. The moment you have your leads acting because of plot demands, readers start to disbelieve.
The most sustained piece of character writing in recent times is Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’. It’s as if she inhabited the body of her hero and was hypnotised into becoming him, the literary equivalent of method acting. Reaching this level is something we might all aspire to, but only a handful of authors ever achieve. I wonder if it comes at great personal expense to invest this much energy in creating character.
My first few novels featured virtually no memorable characters. With ‘Spanky’ I learned that bad-boy characters gave me licence to have fun, even if it did entail trudging around shopping centres with the cover model in tow for all my signing sessions. I particularly enjoy writing strong female roles, which is why I had so much fun writing ‘Plastic’. But female readership can be shockingly conservative – often they still want their women to obsess about rich, handsome men – as sales of ‘Fifty Shades’ have proved.
It was famously noted about Tony Hancock’s character that you could put him in any situation and know how he was going to react, so well-defined was he. And as I sit down now, with a clean blank screen before me, the first thing I start to think about is a fresh and interesting character.