Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Have Aliens Beamed Down Into Your Novel?

Sometimes people write to find out what happened to characters in my novels after The End.  It sounds strange, but I know what all of them have gone on to do - although none of their continuing stories have been interesting enough for me to make into an new novel.  But when you're writing a novel it's much more important to know what had been happening to the characters before the start of the novel.  

Another common problem in the 40 first pages I read at the weekend was that characters appeared to have beamed down from outer space into the story.  They'd been hanging around like featureless homunculi ready for some alien force to dump them into the action.  They had no pasts or presents, only futures.  

I'm a real person.  As I'm sitting typing this I'm thinking obviously about the blog post.  But at the back of my mind I'm thinking about last Saturday's event, and the couple of first pages that had characters that were tabula rasas and how I explained the alien concept to the writers.  I'm also aware that my partner's going to pitch up quite soon.  Later on, I need to make a few phone calls.  Oh, and there'll be some writing to do - I've got a tricky scene to get stuck into. So all this is bubbling away in my head as I type.  If a letter arrived now announcing that I've inherited a million pounds...

Yes, the stuff that's bubbling away now would be put on hold for a bit, but it's still there.  My life exists independently of the exciting bits.  The same is true for characters.  They have to have stuff bubbling away, plans that they're making for the future, thinking over things in the past.  It doesn't have to be on a grand scale - perhaps this is where knowing what a character had for breakfast could come in handy - but it has to be there to make the character appear to have a life outside the story.  

It's this life outside the novel that makes character appear real.  

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am in St Ives Library.  Go to the website for more info.


Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I do comprehensive backgrounds for my characters so I know how they would be likely to react to any given situation. A good way, I use, to get it right and think about all the other things they may have in their lives is to do a couple of extensive diary entries in their voices. It felshes them out more as real people.

Eliza Green said...

When people ask what your characters did next, do you tell them? Are you ever worried that the image in their head won't live up to the reality? Some things are probably better left up to the reader's imagination.

Sarah Duncan said...

Pat - I think it's a particular problem with the opening of novels, before the writer has had a chance to really get to know characters.

Eliza - I have said, but only vaguely. Apart from anything else, think it sounds a bit weird that I know what these imaginary people are doing!