Character-ful v1

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May 30th, 2011
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Writing is something I do because I must. There is a little imp that drives me, and it can only be appeased by copious literary outpourings. By a conservative estimate, over the last fifteen years I have committed some two million words to the screen.

Yes, 2,000,000… that’s a two and six zeros. An impossibly large number: whether they are good words or not, or even in the right order, that is not for me to say. I know for a certainty that some of them will never be read by anyone else than me, but that is a whole other post, for a very different time.

The simplest explanation for this verbiage is that a character takes form in my head, then he, or she, but mostly he, hassles me to write things down about him. It is a little like being married, except there are fewer socks.

Book cover

I fall a little in love with my characters. Take Xan for instance, star of my romantic comedy Custard, Cats and Consequences. Dr Alexander Jacobs, mid thirties, great connections, good job, that awkward first literary fiction novel under his belt, something of a romantic, but completely hopeless with the opposite sex.

One could say that Xan looks for love in all the wrong places. So when he meets true love, needless to say he mucks it up at the first pass. Eventually he gets it right by doing the one thing he does really well.

Xan has undergone several transformations since he first knocked on the door of my creative closet demanding to be let in. In his original incarnation he was a thirty-something, good-time party boy who was into surfing and very little else. He was somewhat selfish and self-centered; not exactly any maiden’s idea of a long term romantic prospect.

At three o’clock in the morning, after a very discouraging day of writing, he demanded something of a character change. He nagged me into making some serious changes. He was a jobless slacker, I had to find him a job. Then he decided that I needed to vent my comic spleen on one of my many literary hang-ups.

Jobless, surfer-dude slacker to English Literature lecturer and teacher of wannabe authors. Quite a transformation.

Of course, Xan is not the only character that nags me in the middle of the night to make changes. Marty the paparazzo and unfortunate almost-hero of my short story ‘Nine Lives’, has been nagging me almost nightly. Marty has a nemesis, and experiences a series of very unfortunate events. Not content with making his existence quite miserable in other ways, I gave him a love rival too. Marty has to learn to be a hero. Even his name is something of a in-joke, there is a literary convention that any character you meet who is absolutely perfect in every respect, he’s known as a Marty-Sue.

Marty is far from perfect, he has to grow and become less ‘imperfect’… quite a feat for a forty-something guy who’s been living for himself for most of his life. Where Xan is far too nice for his own good, Marty has to become less sleazy.

My characters haunt me to write about them in the early hours. Some times I wake up three or four times a night, just to write something down that has bugged me.

So… which comes first, the character or the story? In all honesty, either or both. Custard, the story came and then the characters started showing up, demanding their own space. Marty came to me all on his own. I didn’t have a clue where he was going to fit. But he grew on me to the extent that I had to give him his own story. Then, quite by chance, coupled with the fact that I am a nosey beggar, a photograph of a cat led me to a most improbable fantasy story.

In its first incarnation, the story was not so hot. Another one of those three am wake up calls, and I could see how to fix Marty’s predicament. True this would make his life even more disaster-filled, but if he was willing to risk it, then so was I.

Being something of an exponent of tough love. Most of my characters, particularly the male ones, go through some kind of hell. Usually of their own devising. If there is a way to get it spectacularly wrong, both Xan and Marty choose that path. I am quite a literal person, so when someone said that the path of true love is strewn with rocks, I tend to take that literally. You can guarantee that someone is going to stub their toe.

So there you have it. I have no doubt that this character-visitation thing goes a long way towards explaining why I am the way I am, but I make no apologies for it. Eccentricity is perfectly fine from my side of the fence. I think it makes for more interesting and quirky characters.


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