he hero of my current WIP is a disfigured English Civil War veteran who’s now an Admiralty intelligencer under Charles II. (He sounds spectacularly dull and worthy, but he’s not. He’s a sweetie. Anyway.
The thing is, when I started writing the Drowned Books, I didn’t know very much about the Restoration Navy. Other than Samuel Pepys. Everyone knows Pepys. I knew a lot about the English Civil War, but the events of twenty years later were a bit of a blank.
And that blank made it quite hard for me to delineate the development of my characters.
You see, I know Major Thankful-for-his-Deliverance Russell (ret’d). – or rather, I knew him as a scatty lieutenant in the Civil War, and I know him in the first Drowned Book. But married, with a son, and up to the elbows in smugglers off the coast of Kent, and trying to solve the mystery of a missing person?
Tricky. We’re on unknown territory, here.
So I’ve taken to asking him out.
This evening, we shared a bath. Last week, we had pizza.
Now you’re probably thinking – what? Playdates with a fictional character? Eh?
But it works.
With Russell in 1665, on Romney Marsh poking smugglers, I’m easily distracted. What’s going on politically in Europe at the same time? How does it affect my plot? What does a smuggler’s boat look like? Would everyone be wearing those appalling wigs? – and it’s hard to think any further than those things, getting bogged down in the minutiae of historical accuracy. The characters can only develop, in my head, in response to the stimulus of the plot.
And that’s a one-way ticket to stilted dialogue, cardboard people. It’s precisely the opposite, in real life. We respond to situations, we shape circumstances, as our characters dictate, not vice versa; shy people suddenly discover inner resources when their families are threatened, or strong people have a fatal weakness. Sometimes it’s the drama that brings out those characteristics, but if we were no more than “… The stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them” we would be no more than the sum of our pasts. And this is how we develop those fascinating characters – the odd quirks, the kick in the gallop that makes them memorable. The unpredictable something that the reader doesn’t expect, can’t work out, isn’t logical – but makes your characters somewhat more than a vehicle to carry a plot from Point A to Point B.
I give you Matthew Shardlake, C.J. Sansom’s crook-backed Tudor lawyer. Within the confines of the books, of the plot, he’s a magnificently drawn character, full of power and pathos. But all his development is within the confines of the plot: he has no surprises, no inner life other than a malcontent bound by his disability. You ever heard Shardlake laugh? Know his mother’s name, or his favourite food? Me neither, because those things are not relevant to the narrative.
But he has a mother, presumably, and he does laugh, and he does eat – and so they are relevant. Because if it’s at the back of C.J. Sansom’s mind that Matthew Shardlake laughs at bottom jokes, then he knows all that worthy dourness is a front for a man with a low sense of humour, who maybe likes to hang around inns and stableyards to have his funnybone tickled. Who maybe one day is going to slip up in polite company and chortle “he said bum!” – and maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s going to stay worthy and dour in company forever. And maybe it’s going to be a delicious little hinted private joke between author and reader, a tiny intimate strand so slight that most people won’t even realise there’s a joke to be in on. It just feels real.
Which leaves me with the Ironside in the bath. Does he sing? What does he sing? Is he a soaker, or a scrubber – will he use all the hot water, and leave the wet towels in a heap? Is he going to leap on the possibility of hot running water with zeal, or will he cower behind the washbasin suspectjng devilry?
Because he’s on my turf, now. I’m not worrying about periwigs or plague fleas. I know what a bath is, how it works. He doesn’t.So, presented with a situation I see every day, and he’s never seen before in his life, how’s my boy going to react? You write best what you know. Me, I had a bath this morning, but what about my 1665 hero? Does he even like baths, or is he a little bit stinky? Is he going to fight shy of bubble bath, and claim he had a stand-up wash last week – is he going to be frightened by the novelty of indoor plumbing, or is he going to jump in with abandon, or is he going to poke everything to find out how it works first? Is he maybe going to turn sneakily sensual, and languish in the tub till the water’s cold, or is he strictly practical – will he suddenly develop a streak of ruthless cleanliness? Or is he an opportunist: scrub, shave, hair wash, the whole nine yards, while he’s got the chance? He may be a good and godly man of staid and sensible years, but if he thinks no one’s listening is he going to break out into dodgy drinking songs?
Does he, in fact, sprawl in the bath sloshing water over the sides, and stick one of his toes up the tap just to see what would happen? – well, we’ve all been there.
And if he does any of those things, I know what manner of man he is. And it doesn’t matter what century he’s in, or what circumstances. They’re the set-dressing. The sort of chap who’d unscrew the taps to see how they work, is the same pantser sort of guy who might try and sail a fishing-boat across the English Channel, working out the practicalities of it on the fly. And a guy who can’t get the taps back together after he”s done it, is the same kind of guy who’d sail blithely into the sunset and rediscover America…
The current thing for writers seems to be character interviews, and they’re fascinating, but they can feel artificial, sometimes. They don’t always stretch the author. “James Alexander Malcolm Fraser. Favourite food: porridge. Likes: travel, bagpipes. Dislikes: Redcoats.” A little bit teenage magazine. An author can just pick such out of the air: it’s not grown, it doesn’t develop, it doesn’t necessarily contribute anything to the character – other than a bit of free publicity. (I have no idea what Russell’s favourite food is!) Put him – or her – into a situation you know well and they are strange to, give them free rein, and I can promise you the results will be rewarding. A 1640s cavalry commander loose in the supermarket on Christmas Eve. Now that was fun to imagine.
Go on, take your characters out of their comfort zone and into yours. They won’t thank you for it – but your writing will.
The author would like to be very clear that at no point has she ever watched Thankful Russell in the bath. Nope. Not ever. Certainly not within his wife’s hearing.