Identifying with our characters. And sometimes not. By Jo Carroll

We ask a lot of our characters. Should we ask the same of ourselves?

I've just returned from a trip to Malaysia. It's a wonderful, multicultural country with some of the kindest people in the world. But this trip has thrown three significant unexpectednesses at me - just the sort of thing we throw at our characters.

Firstly, the weather. Floods kept me from the travelling deep into the rainforest: would I ask my fictional self to get caught in the floods, to wade waste-deep with crocodiles and leeches, in an effort to reach safety? The tail-end of the monsoon continued to ravage the east coast and made reaching an island, with its palm trees and snorkelling, difficult as the ferries were unreliable in the stormy weather. My fictional self would have gone anyway, huddled on the beach with the snakes and monkeys and had sand blown in her eyes.

Secondly, the Chinese New Year, a time of glorious celebrations with fireworks and dragons, stretches the public transport system to its limits. I've experienced this before, in Vietnam, so I know that my fictional character might have to travel on a night bus with blocked toilet, so overcrowded that people were sleeping on the floor, careering through the mountains in the dark. It was almost fun the first time. But masochistic to do it again.

Thirdly, there was a significant political trial due to reach its conclusions while I was in the country. I had no idea of the history or ramifications - I only knew what I read in the papers. I gleaned most of my local information from students working as cafes; they were full of their work and travelling plans but tight-lipped if I mentioned the trial. Maybe I should have stayed in Kuala Lumpur to find out, knowing that if there were riots I'd have to hide in alleyways with the rats while the police fired water cannon and possibly worse.

I'm really not that brave. I abandoned the rainforest and the island. I found a place of safety away from KL long before the Chinese New Year.

So can I really put myself in the position of an intrepid character when, faced with a challenge or two, I'm really a bit of a wuss?

You can find out about some of the adventures I was unable to avoid on my website: where there are links to my books.


Nick Green said…
An intriguing question: should writers do their own stunts?

I know that some writers think so - Michelle Paver, for instance, won't write about any aspect of Stone Age life unless she's sharpened a flint or skinned a bison or lit a fire with dried yak bones at first hand.

Me, I'm more of the Lawrence Olivier school of thought. As he said to Dustin Hoffman, who ran up a flight of stairs in order to get suitably out of breath for a scene in Marathon Man, 'Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?'
Wendy H. Jones said…
Fascinating post and certainly food for thought. Identifying too heavily with some of my characters could have a few adverse effects. As writer of crime novels I think I will leave killing people to the pages of my books. However, it made me wonder if there is more I can do to identify with some of the other characters to understand them more clearly.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes I can only think of one crime writer who has committed murder... we can't all be expected to do it! however, your exciting travels, Jo, can obviously feed into your fiction to make it vivid and believable - whether you gloss over the problems of queues etc to move the plot along, or use the holdups and snags to create tension or set up encounters. And you can as all of us can, claim it as a business expense!
JO said…
Thank you all - I can see why crime writers draw the line at murder! And I have done scary things by accident (a memorable encounter with a tiger springs to mind) do can draw on that. But some of my characters are far more intrepid than I am - or maybe they are how I'd like to be!
Sandra Horn said…
that's the brilliant (or one of the brilliant) things about writing, isn't it? Spreading wings you neverknew you had, through your characters. Super post.

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