Writing characters

Sunday 25th March 2018

A novel is a story about characters. What they do, what they say, how they behave. If you want to tell a good story, then you have put into it people who the reader will like. I believe that. It is the approach I am taking in my third novel. It’s all about the people. If the people are good then the story will be good. It is the characters who bring the story to life; it is their story and they tell it in their own words.

No Narrator!

Which is technically rather dodgy. Because. There is no narrator. There is no voice telling the story. If I want to portray how any one of them thinks or feels about anything, then I have to make them say something. Or do something. There is no narrator to tell the reader “Michael felt sad, at what he heard.” You have to see that, in what Michael says or does. This is not as easy as it might seem. Think about life. It can be, sometimes, difficult to get the sense what is happening in a scene from our daily lives. If an event is significant, it might well draw that significance from a whole history of things known only to the two or more people who were there at the time. A fly on the wall, seeing only that moment (in isolation) would not appreciate its significance – without it being explained by a narrator. Novelists usually lead up to an event by telling the story about each of the characters through the narrator’s voice. This allows the background to be assembled. Parts of life histories can be explained. Personal life experiences can be unravelled. When readers get to an event, they understand its significance because they have been through the story leading up to it.

Characters you like

I have to think about characters. If I am going to write a successful novel, then what sort of characters will need to be in it? Based on what I have read, characters need to be likeable, credible, engaging and do things that are worth reading about. Even if you, the reader, do not yourself actually like male teenagers, you have to find something in my three leading characters that you like and can relate to. I have to give you something in each of them that is not about being male or about being aged eighteen. I also have to make them seem like real people – within the content of the story set in the 1960s. So, even if you were not born then, you see how the characters are portrayed and (from your general knowledge of English life) you regard them as being credible – real people, who could have existed, at the time. You also have to find them interesting. I try to give a variety of things that will make a character engaging. Not just one thing. Some characters are nasty. The bad guys. The villains. My three leading men are all nice. Their role is to be the heroes of the story. I can surround them with nasty, bad, villains. But they have to come out unscathed. Unblemished by the shit heaped upon them. They are three likeable young men who become successful but they have to go on a journey to get there. My novel tells the story of their journal through the streets of swinging London.

Real people – but not that real

I have tried to make them real people. But, not like any real person who you would be likely to meet. They are not that ordinary. In fact, they are three young men who are exceptional. None of us is ever likely to meet someone who is like Sherlock Holmes. But we can still believe in him, as we read about him in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He can seem real, but he is far from ordinary. Writing about exceptional characters is, however, a tricky business. If they appear to be too exceptional, they begin to lose credibility. We begin to doubt their authenticity. The knack is to keep them grounded; they might have exceptional talents, skills or abilities, but, really, they just the same as the rest of us, ordinary folk. The heroism of the three boys is their ability to hold on to their self-confidence and stay true to themselves when all around them is changing, when they are confronted with conflict, when they have to struggle with difficult situations.

There are three main characters in my third novel. In that respect, it’s a bit like Three Men in a Boat or The Three Musketeers. Each of the three characters is a distinct individual, in his own right. Collectively they form a group. In fact, they are, for part of the story, a jazz group. A band. A trio of Jazz musicians. It might well be that some readers will like just one of them – more than the others. There is no way of knowing. I just have to make them all equally likeable – for different reasons. All the three characters are male and they are all the same age. Give or take a few months. They were all born into working-class families in small towns in various parts of England. Each of them decided to leave home and seek his fortune in London – and that is where they met each other. They pursued their dreams and then they moved on. Two of them leave London and one stays to follow his new-found career in broadcasting. The novel portrays them through a narrow window – the years from 1967 (when they moved to London) through to 1971 – when their paths went off in different directions. It was the window of time, the period of their lives, that was most formative for them all. They went to London as boys, but they left it as men.

Looking at you, kid

When I started work on the novel, I had a rough idea, in my head, of what each of the three boys looked like. Using this rough idea, I decided to hunt for pictures that would help me to visualise each of them. Knowing that one of them – Michael – is, in fact, me, I copied the only surviving photo of me when I was 18. I then started to hunt for pictures of two teenage boys, filtering my search down to the year 1967. I found two that were spot on. As soon as I saw the photo I wanted for Adrian – I knew straight away that is was him. What I saw in the photo matched what I saw in my mind exactly. The photo for Tom was similarly totally spot-on. I now had three real faces to aid me when I needed to say something about their appearance, describe them, say what they wore, what their hair was like. Having three faces in front of me helped a lot. That gave me more detail than I could get simply from my imagination.

I also wrote profiles for each of them – stating their age, where they had come from, what jobs they did, and other personal details that I needed to get right. As I worked through the first pages of the book, each of them became a real person. They developed characteristics that marked them out and distinguished them from each other. Adrian was the leader. Michael was the thinker. Tom was the cover boy. Having met each other, which they did in quick succession, they began to realise that they shared a lot in common. That is what united them and was the basis of their camaraderie. It was not until they had been together, for some time, as friends, that they discovered they all were musicians. They all played instruments. They could all sing.

The boys in the band

After I had conceived of the idea of making the three lads into a band – I was not at all sure I wanted to use the idea. I thought about it for a few weeks and then decided that I needed to give it a go. If it didn’t work, I could always delete it all. Having decided they would form I band, I then had to decide what sort of band. I opted for jazz. But, it’s not my speciality. So, a lot of the time they played pop music. Straight away, I decided to make them a successful band. Not just three mediocre musicians who could not sing, but three accomplished instrumentalists with angelic voices. I liked the concept. The band becoming a runaway success. But I did not want it to take over the story. For me, it was just a subplot. I now need to make sure that it does not get in the way of the main storyline. As I work with the ‘band’ idea, I need to keep it under control. I need to make it serve the purposes of the main story. It must not become the main story.

This is a novel ‘set’ in the swinging sixties. Like pieces of meat are set in aspic. It is not a story about the swinging sixties. We like to look back on the late sixties and call it ‘swinging.’ What that means is not always clear. I have already discussed this in my previous blog article. Exactly the same story could have been set in 2018, or in the far distant future of even back in ancient Rome. There is nothing about the story that is anything to do with the 1960s – per se. It is still the same story. The 1960s provide the set, the props, the costumes. So, in that respect, it is a period drama. What I must take care to avoid, is writing a soap opera about either London or the sixties. I must stick to the plot. Not get carried away by the trappings and decorations. Let’s see what the next nine months will achieve.

Previous posts on my blog

Sunday 18th March 2018 – The Swinging Sixties.

Sunday 11th March 2018 – What is masculinity, anyway?

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London: Past and present.

Sunday 25th February 2018 – Being an individual.

See the home page for my blog.

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