People often tell me that I write books very quickly. And if we’re just talking about putting words on paper, they’d probably be right. But by the time I actually start to write, I’ve gotten to know my characters so well, that they practically write the story for me. Well I might help them along the way, but what I mean is that I’ve put so much time into developing them, that it’s easy to know what they’ll do in a given situation or how they’ll handle themselves.
Every writer has a different approach to writing a novel. Some concentrate on plotlines, some plan meticulously and some fly by the seat of their pants. There’s no hard and fast rule about how to start a novel and the most important thing is to do what feels comfortable for you. It’s probably because I’m such a people watcher that the character approach works best for me.
When I first have a seed of an idea for a novel, before I even develop the story, I think of my characters. I love this part of the process. I’m a visual person so the first thing I do is try to find a picture of the character I imagine in my head. So if my main character is a thirty year old girl with long blond hair and blue eyes, I’ll search through the internet until I have a picture that matches. Sometimes it could be a celebrity who fits the bill or sometimes it’s some unknown person who just happens to come up in the search. I’ll then print the picture and stick it on the wall in front of my desk.
Then I’ll give her a name, an age and an occupation. I’ll start to think more about her and her family. Where was she born? How many siblings does she have? Is she married? Is she happy? And then the little extras like what she likes to drink and how many sugars she has in her tea. The chances are I won’t need a lot of this information and I’ll never use it in the book, but if she happens to order a cup of tea and is asked if she takes sugar, she’ll be able to answer straight away!
I repeat this process for each of my characters until I have a wall in front of me filled with faces and post-its with bits of information. It’s only then that I feel able and ready to start writing. Having the pictures in front of me has become part of what I do and I couldn’t write without them. It means that I can refer to a dimple on her left cheek or how he parts his hair to the right and I’m not going to contradict it later in the book because it’s right there in front of me.
Now I know this sounds like I’m a meticulous planner. But I’m really not. I may have all my characters ready to go but I usually just start with a seed of an idea for the plot. I know it sounds corny but it’s like the characters are actors and are ready to step on stage. And when they do, I tend to let them improvise. Although I have to advise that this approach is not for everyone. You have to be prepared to delete a lot as you go along because naughty characters have a habit of taking the story down a route you don’t want them to go. I’ve often had characters who kept swearing, even though I warned them not to! Honestly! I bet you think I’m joking.
When I’m profiling my characters, I have certain criteria I like to follow. The first thing is that I try to make them likeable. If a reader doesn’t like a character, they’re more likely not to finish reading. They don’t want to invest four hundred or so pages in somebody they don’t like. It’s also important to make the characters relatable. The reader should be able to relate to them in some way so that they invest even more in the story. I try to draw from real people I’ve met, whether it’s family, friends or people who I’ve crossed paths with in my life. I also use a lot of real experiences and adjust them as necessary for the book. For example, a neighbour of mine got a pretty serious concussion once after been hit in the head with a football. It was only when he was recovered that we could laugh at how confused he’d been. I used that experience in a scene in my first book, Any Dream Will Do – with his blessing of course! I’ve also used some of my more embarrassing and clumsy falls in scenes because, let’s face it, there’s nothing as funny as somebody falling with their legs in the air and their underwear on show! I always think that the character will be more believable if you’ve actually experienced the things they do.
When I’m completely finished a book and when it’s gone to print, it’s only then that I don’t need my characters any more. I know it sounds silly, but I always shed a tear when I take them down from the wall. I always have a print-out of the final draft of the book so I keep the pictures with that so I’ll never forget their faces. My fifth book, A Love Like This, was published this summer and it was by far my favourite book to write. I adored my main characters, Donna and Will, and it was really difficult to file their pictures away. But it’s done now and I’m sitting here facing a new set of characters for my sixth book. Actually, one of them has something to say, so I’d better go and let him speak…
(c) Maria Duffy
About A Love Like This
William and Donna were born on the same day, in the same Dublin maternity hospital. But there the similarities end.
Will grows up in an affluent suburb and struggles to balance what he wants with what will keep his overbearing mother happy. Across the city, Donna, raised by her older sister, often wonders what life would be like without her troubled mother around.
Over the years, Donna and Will almost meet many times, but something – fate? – keeps them apart.
Then tragedy strikes for each of them.
As Will tries to come to terms with a life-shattering event, he decides to travel the world in the hope of finding happiness. Donna, now alone in the world, makes plans to leave Dublin to fulfil a life-long dream.
More than 10,000 miles from home, they finally meet. And they know nothing will ever be the same. When a terrible disaster separates them, Will and Donna find they can’t stop thinking about each other, about what might have been.
Perhaps fate has plans for them still, and all hope is not lost …
A Love Like This is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!