Characters - real and imagined! Jo Carroll

I've been home from Malawi for a few weeks now, and a little ebook about my travels is taking shape. At the same time, I've been trying to market a novel.

And this has got me thinking. Although the novel was inspired by a vignette I found in the museum in Hokitika, New Zealand, most of it is made up. I had to find characters in my own head. I went through the long process of getting to know them all, how they spoke, why they did what they did. It's a long unravelling - and I loved it. I love the unpicking of a character and throwing them into new places - I have notebooks full of scribbles as I let each character find his or her voice, and only then did I know them well enough to drop them into the novel.

Then came the task of inviting the reader to go through a comparable process - of meeting each character, unpicking why they do what they do, even responding on an emotional level. (Looking back, I think there is still one character that I don't know well enough - brownie points to anyone who has read the book and works out who that is!)

But now I've returned to the travel writing. And in Malawi my guide, Everlasting (that really is his name), proved to be extraordinary - never in all my imaginings could I have created a character like him. He has given permission for me to write about him (thankfully) - so now I have to find a way to present him to the reader in such a way that he or she gets a feel for him, but also believes in a man I couldn't possibly make up. I can describe him (tall, and slim, with clothes that almost fitted him). I can tell some of his stories (he is a great story-teller). I can write about the way he looked out for me. But ... I'm not convinced, at the moment, that I've found a way to write about him in such a way that the reader gets to know him, page by page, as we do in a novel.

I'll have to finish the book and then wait for reviews, I suppose. Though I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has had to grapple with this.

Meanwhile, you can find the novel here and explore my travelling here


Anonymous said…
You've put your finger on it. It's one thing to create believable characters, show their good points and flaws by what they do and say and what they're thinking - which is hard enough, goodness knows - but how do you bring to life a real person, for whom you can't really invent occurrences that will bring out their personality, or what you feel is their personality... The more you try to pin it down, the more slippery it becomes. Writers do manage it, of course, but I can't help suspecting some of the best portrayals of real people in books may be enlivened by a smattering of fiction. Look at Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, for instance.

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