Is your character based on a real person? This was the first question from Richard Beard, director of The National Academy of Writing who chaired The Writers’ Conference, organised by freelance editor, Ali Reynolds and held at the Bristol Festival of Literature last week. Patricia Ferguson, author of The Midwife’s Daughter, and I were discussing characterisation.
My protagonist, Emily Harris in Sugar Island, is based on a real person – the actress Fanny Kemble. This was a bit of a mixed blessing as there was so much information out there already about Fanny, numerous biographies and the diary she wrote, which I used as the basis for Sugar Island. I did change her personality a bit, partly for the purposes of the story and partly because I condensed the action down to a year and a half instead of it taking place over half her lifetime, so Emily remains a young woman throughout the course of the novel. It was a relief when about a third of the way into writing the novel, Fanny finally became Emily, and her husband Pierce, truly became Charles, in my mind.
Patricia’s characters developed as she wrote and got to know them better, particularly Bea, the midwife of the title – she suddenly realised after she’d started that Bea had an identical twin, for instance! Once she’d finished the book, Patricia went back to the beginning, read the dialogue out loud and corrected how Bea and other characters spoke now that she knew what they would or would not say.
Both of us write a lot of dialogue and think it is important in conveying the character, in terms of how that person would have phrased their sentences as well as what they would have said. I, however, perhaps because of my background in psychology, specifically Theory of Mind, think that what my character is thinking, what other characters think about her or think about what she’s thinking, are more important!
Interestingly, although we have a good idea of our key character’s minds, Patricia only sees her protagonists as a blur. I see mine more clearly, but not as sharply as a real person. This is perhaps because we’re operating from the inside out – thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world as our characters might, not as a bystander observing them. For minor characters – in my case, the slaves in Sugar Island – we both used images of actors we found on the internet!
The most startling question of the evening from a member of the audience was whether we ever imagined what animal our characters might be?! I immediately had an image of a panther for Emily! Neither of us does: Patricia says that she thinks about what their shoes would be like and what might be in their pockets, both of which sound like interesting tips.
I spend a long time working on my key characters: I think about their appearance, their height, weight, shape, mannerisms, where they grew up, who their parents, siblings and friends are, how they were treated in childhood and how that has shaped the person they have become, where they were brought up, what period in history they live in, what their culture, religion, core beliefs and values are, how others perceive them and how they might reveal their true selves and change under pressure. Only when they are fully realised do I begin the novel. This is not to say that they don’t grow, develop or surprise me as I’m writing!