Character-ful v2

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Jun 5th, 2011
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In the next of this series on character, the author of May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, M.M. Bennetts talks about character in Historical Fiction:

Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.

The only book I ever read on how to write a novel gave this tip:  don’t make your main character a Lester Goodpants.

I’ll admit, that name is the only thing I can honestly remember about it.

But the name has, over the course of more than twenty years, stuck with me.  It’s just so…so vivid.  And it’s good advice.  Though not necessarily easy to follow.

Because it’s all too easy to give an mc the standard vices–promiscuous but obviously just hasn’t met the right mate yet; drinks too much upon occasion, bad-tempered in the morning.  But to create a credible character of depth and ambiguity requires more work.

Or perhaps less work and more fermentation.

I first encountered such intriguing characters in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend–Sydney Carton and Eugene Wrayburn, respectively.  And in both cases, Dickens begins by painting these individuals in the darkest of colours, leaving the reader uncertain whether these are our heroes (are you kidding?  have you looked at them?) or just skanks Dickens created to fill up the pages and get his penny per word.

Yet over the course of these novels, Dickens allows these characters to be changed and subtly altered, like water spilt on old watercolours, through their encounters with the other characters and with life itself.  And that was nothing short of masterful on both occasions.

And it was this depth of character I wanted to create in Of Honest Fame.

As it’s a spy novel, I’d imagined it would interesting to explore the double life these men lived and the damage it would wreak on their ability to maintain normal relationships, on their ability to trust.  The rest was serendipitous.

The early nineteenth century was a period of heavy drinking and heavier gambling, and London was a city in transition, more 18th century grit and moral decay than tidy Victorian terraced houses.  So the character of Thos Jesuadon–one of the protagonists in the novel–was natural.  He appears to be a drunkard and a dissolute and he is.  Both of those.  As such, against such a background, he is invisible.  Perfect.

Then too, someone who is perpetually hungover is likely to have a fairly jaundiced view of humanity.  Again, perfect.

And I found that as the novel unfolded…

(Don’t ask me if I plotted the dashed thing.  I did.  Frequently.  Only to find within a chapter that said plot had ended up on the floor with all the rewrites.  Until I no longer bothered, but just ‘let it’…)

…As the other characters became clearer on the page than they had been in my head, as the action unfolded according to the historical facts and events I was weaving through the story, as I allowed him to ferment (no word play intended) and react and just live, he revealed more of himself.  The sourness and anger and loss.  The imperturbability of his fine intelligence.  His impatience.  His view of himself.

It wasn’t so much a case of writing him as of getting myself as quiet and as out of the picture as possible–with all my opinions and ideas of what would work well or be quite intriguing–and just letting him talk.  (He rarely shut his gob after a while.)  Of allowing him to breathe and glower and drink and not drink.   Of giving myself the mental space to envision him striding down the muck-strewn clay and grit streets, through the puddles and mud which splashed and soaked his stockings, down the back alleys of the Rookery into places with names like Dark Entry, and just seeing what happened, just seeing what he saw, seeing his reactions and then writing them.  And rewriting until I’d got it exactly right.

And that’s it.  It’s that simple.  Or difficult.

Still, I’m told it works.

And that’s all that counts in the end.

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