When The Characters Take Charge

The Arts

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.

6 comments on “When The Characters Take Charge”

  1. Roger says:

    …and – of course – there’s At Swim Two-Birds, where the author and his characters (including the son of the author and a character) compete to write one another’s fates.

  2. snowy says:

    Charlie Elton is/was an Exec Prod at ITV.

    “Charles Elton worked as a designer and editor in publishing before becoming a literary agent. Since 1991 he has worked in television and for the past ten years has been the executive producer in drama at ITV. Among his productions are the Oscar-nominated short Syrup, The Railway Children, Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Northanger Abbey, and the recent series Time of Your Life, all produced in association with WGBH Boston’s Masterpiece Theater.”

    [His other book is called “The Songs” 2017]

  3. brooke says:

    Hi, Snowy. Follow-up to our conversation: From our library system podcast. Start around 30:00 when Q&A begins.

  4. Jesica says:

    I absolutely am hooked on Bryant and May. I think I am the only one here who is….hooked. Bunch of Minnesotans with no sense of quirky humor live here. Or much of any humor for that matter. That is OK, I shall keep B&M selfishly to myself .
    Off Kilter Lunacy—could not have said it better.

    I keep my phone handy to look up stuff to try to catch you in some outlandish lie. I have not found one yet. So very interesting about all the weird London places, people, words,events. Who knew? Oh yeah,,,,,Bryant.

    While I am cozily snuggled in my reading chair with a cup of coffee, tea or more likely wine handy, I am pen and paper-less.
Mayhap you could think about creating a glossary in the back so I can refer to all the quirky words and obscure murders, etc so I don’t have to get up and lose my place or spill my drink. Please?

    Am just now finished with The Lonely Hour which I adored other than May going missing or dead. I shall be anxiously awaiting your next endeavor at uncovering yet more weird and obscure London-ness-es.

    Your writing is great. The characters to me are believable. I am one of those actually. Sort of.

    You have a very strangely brilliant and inquisitive mind. Maybe you could a serial murderer.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks Snowy – many strings to his bow.
    ‘I’ve been meaning to write a novel but I just haven’t had the time’ – London cabbie to me.

  6. snowy says:

    Thanks B, given how badly Poetry pays these days he should turn his story into a ‘one man show’ and tour it, needs to get the tone/style exactly right – a bit of Richard Pryor circa 1978 mixed with ‘?’.

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