Much of what I learned years ago, when I trained as an actress and later worked as a scriptwriter, has stood me in good stead as a novelist. Obviously, there’s general stuff that transfers from any work situation to another, like “turn up on time – no, make that ten minutes early” and “never apologise or explain, just concentrate on the job”. But certain specific technical rules are also directly transferrable, and can help to make a novelist’s life easier, particularly when you’re working on a series. One of these is how, as a drama student, you’re taught to approach “a supporting role”. Fundamentally, it amounts to this: even if a character is onstage for no more than a few minutes – or has only a couple or no lines to say – it’s your job as an actor to create a fully-rounded person whose backstory you’ve developed in depth, and understand with both intellect and gut. For me, the same rule applies when an author creates a minor character, and the processes an actor brings to study and rehearsal can equally apply when writing a book.
The purpose of technique is to increase efficiency. Mastering, and knowing when to apply, it is like having a well-designed tool to hand. Inevitably, the first parts I got as an actor were small ones. Back then, I’d sit down and write reams of backstory for my characters, aware that no one would read what I’d written but knowing the exercise would help me focus. Later, with experience, came the confidence to use a kind of shorthand, which, these days, I apply to writing novels. My starting-point is always geography. Where does the character come from? What kind of environment was s/he raised in? Urban or rural? Mountainous or low-lying? Close to, or far from, water? And so on. Then I pull the shot in tighter, as it were, and look more closely. Does this person from a large family? Was s/he happy at school? Is s/he happy at work? In a relationship? Physically attractive? Loud or soft voice – and, in either case, why? How does s/he stand and walk? What seat would s/he choose on a bus, and why? Idiosyncrasies in dress – if so, what first caused them? And so it goes on, pulling in more closely, and then back out again, till I can sketch the essence of a background character in strokes confident enough to convey it, yet not so detailed that the reader’s attention is drawn in the wrong direction.
This is invaluable when it comes to writing the Finfarran novels. The Year of Lost and Found is the seventh book in the series, all of which work as standalones and are set in the same contemporary rural Irish community. I came to them after years of TV and radio scriptwriting, much of which was for what are known as “returning series”, dramas lasting several seasons and generally based in a “precinct” (a hospital, say, or a newsroom) or a community, where viewers get to know a number of different groups or households that surround one or several central characters. Such shows, developed for broadcast, assume that, while the stars always remain the central focus, other characters’ storylines will move from background to foreground across the arc of a season, which might consist of anything from six to twenty episodes. So, storyliners and scriptwriters are used to the assumption that each character introduced should have the potential for heavyweight development.
When I wrote The Library at the Edge of the World, the first Finfarran novel, I knew my librarian, Hanna Casey, would be my central character, and I began from the premise that everyone in her family and community should have backstories containing the seeds of major plotlines for future books. At the time, those plotlines hadn’t been developed. They couldn’t have been, because, for me, stories emerge from characters in action, and the characters concerned existed only in embryo, as has every new minor character across the series since then. The point is that, because of what I learned as an actress, and then as a scriptwriter, each of Finfarran’s incidental characters is put through a rigorous technical exercise to ensure that I know their potential for development is truly there.
The process of creating backstories for minor characters is about ensuring that they’re rooted in truth. A background character may appear in a scene as a touch of colour, or a device for getting a plotline from A to B, but s/he can’t just be that if your book as a whole is really going to work. Aideen, one of The Year of Lost and Found’s two main protagonists, appears in The Library at the Edge of The World as a shy girl who’s just left school and is serving behind the counter when Hanna shops in a deli. In the second novel in the series, she’s dating Hanna’s library assistant, Conor, and the emotional development of their relationship drives a central plotline. By the third, they’re engaged, and, though I foreground Conor, Aideen is largely in the background. She’s there again in the fourth book, doesn’t appear in the fifth, and in the sixth, though she and Conor are married, their storyline isn’t central. So, it’s taken seven novels for me to give her a starring role, delve into her past and explore both her conscious life and her unconscious impulses. Yet the seeds of all that happens to her as a new mum in The Year of Lost and Found were present in that shy school-leaver behind the deli counter. That certainty made it easy for me to develop her character truthfully however deeply I delved, and to deliver a storyline made more powerful because it’s emerged from years of awareness of who she was in essence, and an urge to explore her further along with my readers.
(c) Felicity Hayes-McCoy
About The Year of Lost and Found:
Ordinary people. Extraordinary secrets …
It’s business as usual in the sleepy town of Lissbeg on the west coast of Ireland, but, as local librarian Hanna Casey gathers material for an exhibition on Ireland’s struggle for Independence, secrets revealed in her Great-Aunt’s diary expose her own family history of love, dishonour and revenge. Will Hanna risk personal and professional fallout by keeping those war-torn secrets to herself, or will she honour the exhibition’s spirit of shared storytelling?
Meanwhile, newly-wed Aideen has just had her first baby and becomes convinced that she needs to find her own dad, whom she’s never known. But is she really prepared for the consequences?
Hanna and Aideen each face decisions and it soon becomes clear that, when old wounds are opened and forgotten memories disturbed, history is never just about the past. Will they discover that finding happiness is all about living in the present?
‘A page-turning novel filled with wonderful characters. Curl up and treat yourself to the perfect escape’ Sinéad Moriarty
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