Character Building

It’s a strange thing, to dream a person to life. Yet that is what a writer does, creates characters to walk the pages of their book, talking and breathing and thinking and doing. I’ve had to come up with quite a few people for Ambeth, and the interesting and slightly eerie thing is that they seem to have taken on a life of their own. Oh, not in some sort of horror movie way, where I wake in the dead of night to find their hands on my neck (though that is an idea for a story, isn’t it?) No, it is a far gentler thing, in that they speak through me, letting me know what is right and what is wrong for them, who they are with, who they are interested in, how they relate to other people on the page.

When I started to write about Ambeth I had three characters, the main protagonist and two others. I also had a situation, an idea of how they would combine and then implode, a single event that would change everything. As the story grew around them, more characters joining the cast, this single event did not change – in fact, it became even more pivotal, a jumping off point for much of what was to happen in subsequent stories. So I couldn’t change it; no matter how I looked at it, there was no other way. But the character who precipitated the event did change. He started off life arrogant and not so nice, someone who thought only of himself and his own needs. That was fine, I thought, that was what I needed him to be. But then he started to become nicer, gentler, more loving. It was as if he were speaking to me, saying ‘I’m not such a bad guy.’ And, looking at it now I can see that this was absolutely true, that he is so much more than the one dimensional villain I dreamed up initially. But what was I to do about the ‘very bad thing’ he needed to do, the point on which the story turned? What was his motivation? A wise friend once said to me, ‘go to sleep on a question, wake with the answer.’ So that’s what I did. I commended my plot problem to the gods of storytelling and went to sleep. I woke the next morning and, I remember it so clearly, I was standing in the shower and there it was. The answer. The reason for everything.

So the lesson for me was, as a writer, once you dream your characters onto the stage of your story, stand back a little and let them tell the tale. They will guide you as to what is right.

‘But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master–something that at times strangely wills and works for itself.’  Charlotte Bronte

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