I was asked recently how I came up with the character of Kay Kelly. For those who have not read the book, Kay Kelly is the first-person narrator of my second novel, On Bone Bridge. Did I, this person wondered, know all about her before I wrote the book?
I had to admit that the opposite was the case, that as I typed the first line of the first chapter of On Bone Bridge I knew pretty much nothing at all about Kay Kelly other than her name.
This got me thinking about the process of developing characters and I have come to the conclusion that, like so many aspects of writing, this area too is something of a mystery to me.
Or course rules apply. It is quite tempting to sketch out the plot of a novel first and think about our characters later, but I personally believe that if I do that, I may find myself trying to shove my characters into places and situations where they do not comfortably fit. In other words, it is important to know who our characters are before we begin to make things happen to them.
Every writer wishes to write strong memorable characters, particularly so in the case of their central character. It is also very important to people a book with believable, relatable characters, not one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all excuses for characters. They need to have depth and at least some level of complexity just like real people do. They also need inner-lives.
With all of this in mind, I find it helps to ask myself a lot of questions – like, what does he/she look like? What drives them? Do they have any obsessions? Have they been hurt or affected in some way by an event or events in their past? What are their strengths? What are their flaws? Do I even like them? Do they like themselves? What do they fear most? How will they grow or change in the course of the story. To what extent will they determine the plot of my novel?
In the case of my debut novel, The Last Lost Girl, I knew from the outset that my plot would be driven by my central character, Jacqueline; she was at the heart of the novel. This was so, in spite of the fact that ostensibly the book was about Jacqueline’s missing older sister, Lilly, who disappeared one night in the hot summer of 1976 when Jacqueline was only eleven years old.
The journey I took the reader on was Jacqueline’s journey, as she set out to attempt to finally solve the mystery which had torn her family apart. I knew that Jacqueline would be a complex character, damaged, flawed; necessarily so, on account of what had happened to her sister and the feelings of guilt she had been carrying as a result of what had happened.
Even so, I cannot say that I wrote Jacqueline into being, rather it seemed to me that she was already there somewhere in the ether, almost as though she were just waiting for me, as though I were not so much a writer as a medium. Perhaps this explains why to some readers, Jacqueline seemed unlikeable; I did not make her that way, she was that way. And that’s OK, a reader does not have to like a character in order to engage with him or her.
That said, in On Bone Bridge, I do think that Kay Kelly is a fundamentally likeable character. In spite of the fact that she, like Jacqueline, experiences trauma at a very early age, she is not a tormented character. Unlike Jacqueline, Kay is sociable, easy in her own skin, altogether I would say, a simpler character than Jacqueline. Is she as interesting as Jacqueline – I am not sure that she is. But On Bone Bridge contains a second central character in the person of the spoilt, privileged, passionate and possibly amoral Violet-May Duff not to mention her enigmatic sister, Rosemary-June Duff who provide enough interest for any reader – at least I hope so!
So, back to that question – how do I come up with my characters?
Mystery aside, I would say the important thing is to create a space for our characters to come in. This means being patient, which is not to say we just sit back and do nothing. But we listen and watch for them, and this applies whether we find ourselves in bed, or on the bus or in the dentist’s chair. As writers, we should be observing the people around us, revelling in their uniqueness, their wonderful quirky, messy, fantastic humanity, because these are our models, our templates.
And finally, we need to let our characters surprise us – they should and they will, even down to leading the plot in different directions to the one we may have envisaged.
Ah, there’s that mystery again!
(c) Maria Hoey
About On Bone Bridge:
Kay Kelly has always envied pretty, privileged Violet-May Duff, but the two young girls come from very different worlds. Suddenly befriended by Violet-May, Kay finds herself welcomed into the grand Duff house, where, charmed by Violet-May’s sister, the ethereal Rosemary-June, and intrigued by Mrs Duff, a woman with a past, she falls helplessly in love with Violet-May’s brother Robbie. It all seems too good to be true. And it is.
One mild September afternoon the three young girls take Violet-May’s baby brother for a walk in his pram. What happens on Bone Bridge that day will change all their lives forever.
Now in her thirties, Kay’s path crosses once more with the Duff family and it doesn’t take her long to realise that something is very wrong. With the life of a child clearly threatened, Kay is forced to accept that what happened all those years ago on Bone Bridge has come back to haunt her. Now, not only must she resurrect painful memories, but the time has come to finally face up to terrible truths, even if it means putting her own life in danger.
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