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The ‘Key’ to Characters by Domhnall O’Donoghue

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Domhnall O’Donoghue

Domhnall O’Donoghue

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When writing fiction, drawing on real-life people who inhabit an author’s world can be a help, but also a hindrance writes Domhnall O’Donoghue.

Many years ago, in my early days as an actor, I quipped to some friends at supper that I would only truly make it in life when I had a stalker. After all, the entertainment industry’s biggest stars laid claim to one – from Madonna to Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt to Halle Berry.  ​​

Full of youthful folly, I painted a vivid picture of my unhinged fanatic, complete with night vision goggles and poorly etched tattoos with my name scrawled across a heart or skull!

One friend’s polite response belied her exasperation:

‘Be careful what you wish for,’ she advised while opening another bottle of Merlot – probably the only way she could tolerate my nonsense.

Prone to making outrageous statements at that time, I had forgotten about this exchange until someone reminded me of it a couple of years ago.

‘Did you ever get that stalker you always wanted?’ he asked.

By coincidence, I was busy debating various plots for my third novel, and this reminder left me wondering what would happen if the author in me were to activate this fantasy – and I did, in fact, acquire a stalker.

From an early age, I have enjoyed an interest in celebrity culture – in particular, the unrealistic expectations we mere mortals have of the stars whose posters adorn our bedroom walls. Convinced that it would be an exciting subject to explore, the seeds of Crazy For You were sown.

When toying with themes, styles and tones, I explored the idea of creating a hybrid of two genres – autobiography and contemporary fiction. Not only had it proven to be a popular format in television comedy – Seinfield and Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example – but it had also been a successful device utilised in novel form, often referred to as autofiction, a term coined by our French literary friends.

Writing for Vulture, critic Christian Lorentzen described autofiction as ‘books that invite readers to imagine they might be reading something like a diary, where the transit from real life to the page has been more or less direct. But that effect, whatever the truth of it, is an illusion.’

Lorentzen cited Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, Jenny Offill and Tao Lin – as well as Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard – as examples of successful authors in this genre.

And so, in my first draft of Crazy For You, all my characters were real – for instance, me, my parents, my friends, my colleagues, and my agent. So, too, were the local and international locations – along with the soap where I’ve worked for nine years, Ros na Rún, and the various magazines I’ve written for including Woman’s Way and Irish Tatler Man.

The only character who was my own invention was the grotesque but hilarious stalker, Vonnie – a Donald Trump-esque narcissist who will stop at nothing in her quest to capture the heart of her darling man!

I sent a first draft of the manuscript to my friend, Vanessa – a writer, actor and keen reader – whose feedback had been invaluable to me in the past. However, it soon emerged that that adage about writing what you know might not have been as helpful as I had initially hoped…

Vanessa’s primary concern was that, ironically, all the characters – including me – weren’t believable! In fact, the only character who she felt truly convinced was the fictional Vonnie.

When I revisited the manuscript, instantly, I could see that she was right. Fearful that I would offend – or spark charges of libel – I had painted everyone in a light that would typically be reserved for the gods alone!

The biggest issue was how I presented myself – the protagonist. Rather than being an interesting, nuanced character who readers could root for, I had indulged my ego and presented myself in the most flattering of lights. Oh my days – in addition to possessing the beauty of Adonis and radiance of Apollo, I boasted the wisdom of Minerva and agility of Nike!

The end result? I came across as dull as the proverbial ditchwater!

Elsewhere, in one chapter, I had needed jealous and insecure Vonnie to insult the furniture of my real-life best friend, Ruth. However, I had avoided it, concerned that my pal of thirty-five long years would think that I had genuinely felt her couch and coffee table were fit for the scrapheap! (I can assure you, the décor in Ruth’s house is beautiful; her good taste extends well beyond her friends!)

Vanessa’s observations were a quick reminder that characters desperately require a little dirt on their faces and under their nails. That’s what makes us human. What makes us authentic. What makes us interesting.

As soon as I had identified the problem, I rewrote every character as fictional – notably, ‘Domhnall’ became ‘Clooney’. The freedom was transformative.

Ill-prepared to abandon my original idea completely, Crazy For You evolved into a Roman à Clef or a Novel with a Key. In this genre, real-life events and people are concealed and protected by a façade of fiction.

This jazzy term, again coined by the French, refers to the idea that once the reader has the figurative key to the people or events in the thinly disguised fiction, they can work out the ‘real’ story. Masters in this genre include Truman Capote, John Banville, George Orwell and Sylvia Plath.

Traces of me undoubtedly remain in the final draft of Crazy For You. For instance, an old friend kindly likened the reading process to spending a few hours in my company – but now, Clooney and the similarly imperfect characters that orbit his life have layers and depth.

The lesson I learned throughout the surprisingly therapeutic writing process of Crazy For You: whatever genre you opt for or structure you take, make sure you have the freedom to make your characters real, vulnerable and, most importantly, flawed.

Just like we all are in real life.

(c) Domhnall O’Donoghue

About Crazy For You:

When Clooney Coyle promises Vonnie Gallagher they’ll be friends for life, he has no idea what he’s letting himself in for. The lonely and eccentric Vonnie quickly becomes obsessed with the kind-hearted but insecure actor, and her misguided crush soon develops into something much more sinister, which leaves Clooney’s career in tatters. But when fate takes a strange turn and elevates the pair into an overnight celebrity couple, Clooney must decide whether to embrace the fame he has longed for since childhood or end the ridiculous charade before Vonnie’s jealous – and murderous – inclinations spiral out of control.

Genuinely hilarious, charmingly intelligent’ – The Irish Times​
Assured, astute and wickedly funny’ – Woman’s Way
Witty and charming and very, very funny’ – The Irish Examiner

Order your copy online here.

Read an extract here.

About the author

Hailing from Navan, Domhnall O’Donoghue works as an actor and journalist, dividing his time between Dublin, and Galway, where he films TG4’s award-winning series Ros na Rún. He is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin (Bachelor in Acting Studies) and IADT (Master’s in Screenwriting).
Domhnall has written for the majority of Ireland’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Irish Tatler Man. He also writes a monthly column in Woman’s Way.
His previous novels are Sister Agatha (Tirgearr Publishing) and Colin and the Concubine (Mercier).
His third novel, Crazy For You, is also published by Mercier Press.

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