When The Characters Take Charge
It took me years to realise that books are made by characters, not plots. Yet sometimes characters are so overpoweringly real that they go in search of the author – beware of creating fictional figures that might spring to life when you least expect it…
In The Land of Laughs Jonathan Carroll’s hero is an author who has populated the town of Galen, Missouri with his own characters, building detailed backstories for them. But when the author dies the characters live on. The book, which plays like a magical realist Ray Bradbury-influenced fantasy, acted as a springboard for Carroll’s career, and remains his best book (at least, of the ones I’ve read; there are 14).
Mr Toppit concerns one Arthur Hayman, author of ‘The Hayseed Chronicles’, who dies, but by a strange chain of events his series of children’s novels become world-famous. However, buried deep inside the books lie a secret that affects his remaining family – and the unseen sinister figure of Mr Toppit controls them all…sadly, this was the only book from Charles Elton, about whom I can find nothing at all.
Declan Burke’s Absolute Zero Cool is the tale of a porter who plans to burn down the hospital where he works in a clever meta-fiction wherein the leading character’s interference in the story keeps undermining the author’s intentions. It’s a neat parable about the creative spirit.
The most charming tale I’ve come across about fictional characters taking over comes from the under-recognised Frank Baker.
In his enchanting Miss Hargreaves two friends on holiday in Ireland are required to invent the titular 83 year-old woman to gain access to a church. Later, forced to explain how they met her by a suspicious girlfriend, they slowly add details to her life, embellishing her backstory with news that she always travels with a cockatoo, a harp and her own hip-bath. The lark gets out of hand when they receive a telegram from Miss Hargreaves herself, informing them that she is coming to stay for an indefinite period – but how can they explain who she is when they can’t even understand why she exists?
A comedy about the creative imagination, loss of control and the pressures of conformity, ‘Miss Hargreaves’ came to the London stage starring Margaret Rutherford and was supposed to be a film but – the war happened. There’s a terrific edition of the book from Tartarus.