He was most concerned about the reaction of his mother. Would she forgive him? Would it cause a feud that would split the family, and make him an outcast?
He kept his head down, hoping she wouldn’t read it. But shortly after it appeared, his mother summoned him. Sweaty palmed, he appeared before her to receive her judgment.
“Excellent book, darling,” she said. “Good characterisation. Your sister, Iris, is absolutely true to life. And a brilliant portrayal of Uncle William. Utterly searing. Aunt Wilma was so real I could just see her.
“But do tell me, darling … Who on earth did you base that awful mother on?”
I have a somewhat different experience. People constantly see themselves or people they know in my books – mostly erroneously. When my first book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, appeared, my mother took the flaws and vulnerabilities of my mother-character very personally.
“But it wasn’t meant to be you,” I said.
But when she triumphantly pointed that out to the book club, they told her: “Don’t be silly, Margot. Of course it’s you.”
When my next book expressed a mother figure only as a presence at the end of a telephone, she thought I was expunging her from my life, if only in fantasy.
Just recently, I was forwarded an anguished email from someone I’d known only vaguely at university, asking whether the “boring and judgmental teacher” somewhere in my second book was intended to be her.
People assume autobiography and get their kicks from the supposed voyeuristic glimpse into an author’s life. In our reality-show world, whether “it’s real” gives more of a thrill than whether a piece of fiction moves us or speaks to us.
The soap opera created by Yasmin Kureishi’s very public scrap with her author brother, Hanif, over his depiction of their family, was lapped up by public and media.
The “revenge memoir” by Michel Houellebecq’s mother, Lucie Ceccaldi, who termed her son “an untalented social climber” probably did more to sell books than all the critical description of his works as a “cruel illumination of a troubled era”.
Novelists do draw from life. Pat Conroy is said to have no contact with his family as a result of his novels. Iris Murdoch is reported to have felt herself less of writer for not being able to create her characters purely from imagination.
And I suppose I do too – to an extent. Particularly when I first began writing, I found it comforting to imagine someone I knew, or perhaps an amalgam of two or three, at the start of the character-building process.
But the narrative process is different from life. We rely on characters to provide conflict and drama, we place them in situations the real characters may never have faced.
Before two pages are written, those characters have developed their own personalities and their own flaws. They have become their own people. They even look different in my head.
In my first book, I borrowed something of the interchange between a young girl and her two older brothers. The elder of these is protective yet remote by virtue of the age gap. The younger is more gentle and sensitive, and struggles with that in society that prizes macho traits.
Yet the events that changed them utterly never happened to my family. The situations in which I placed that girl-child and her brothers drew strengths and outlined weaknesses that were never there in the stark relief of life.
In four books, most of my protagonists have been women. There’s no deep feminist purpose behind that. I’m a woman and I find it easier to think myself into the head of another woman – even one that is different from me.
I’m not a campaigning writer. I have no ulterior motives or messages about the nature of women that I hope will pop up like subliminal signposts between the lines.
I believe strongly that, if you begin a book with “a message” you wish to convey, you’re going to write a stodgy book with cardboard characters.
I have no special dispensation, no answers more valid than anyone else’s. I have no desire to grab my readers by the throat and force them to understand what I may think I know.
My only intention is to explore the actions of motivations of real people – flawed people. I have no interest in characters who represent some desired attribute.
I was once criticised for a black character being portrayed as a “victim” of apartheid, rather than strong, brave or in charge of his own destiny.
What the critic failed to mention was that all my characters are flawed, and many are damaged. This is as true of my white characters as it is of black, my women and men.
I write about “ordinary” people in “extraordinary” circumstances, which is how I see our setting in South Africa. It has formed – and sometimes damaged – us in fascinating ways.
My writing is a seeking to understand. I rummage around in the flaws and quirks of, hopefully, real people and delve into their innermost fears and less
I couldn’t bear to depict society’s baddies without vindication, nor the good guys without flaw. I have no interest in writing people as they “should be”.
It’s not my job as a novelist to build a nation by depicting all women as powerful and brave, nor to embue my black characters with all the dignity and strength we long for in our society.
It would be disingenuous of me to deny having a world view or that this comes through in my writing. If anything it is this. I don’t believe in good and evil, and certainly not as embodied in people.
I am fascinated by people’s flaws, as much as their strengths. I believe that every person has weaknesses that will, under the pressure of certain conditions, cause them to “do” good or evil, or perhaps merely to do nothing in the face of evil.
In my third book, Sad at the Edges, I became obsessed with the idea of exploring what would cause a man to become a spy and, having become one, how he would face his life in our new society. Would he think his life a waste?
I had known an activist, who became a spy, and later an interrogator. But since I only knew him as an activist – at bright and talented man – I only knew a fragment of him.
For the purposes of my book, I attempted to climb inside him, to explore his motivations, and feel what he must have felt. I tried to examine what had made him what he was. I also had to suspend my personal judgments, or he would have come out
People told me afterward they felt a certain empathy for this character, but felt guilty for doing so, since he was “evil”.
But surely this is the only way we will ever understand ourselves – as individuals or as a nation. That’s the beauty of fiction. It allows us the latitude to look unflinchingly at people’s thoughts and behaviour – without the tyranny of “what really happened”.
I like people. I have empathy for their weaknesses, and a belief in people’s strength when the chips are down. But it’s the job of the novelist to rummage around in people’s less savoury aspects as much as their good sides.
As I grow in writing experience, I draw as much from imagination as from life. In my latest book, My Brother’s Book, my protagonists are drawn purely from the imagination.
Oh, I’m sure Lily, has some aspects of me. But in other respects, she’s very different. I like Lily. She’s a colourful, attractive personality – but she is very flawed.
Her brother Tom is nothing at all like me, nor anyone I know. Tom is a person of great strength, but it is his strength that is his great flaw, in not allowing any acknowledgment of human weakness. He tries to be good, yet he is harder to like and get to know than Lily.
Their warm yet irresponsible father I drew from my fascination with a real person – one I’d heard stories of, but never known. But again, I’m sure the final character bears no relation to the real person, nor should he.
I climb inside my characters. I daydream them and intuit what they will say and how they will respond. They become quite real to me.
My plots grow largely out of the actions of my characters and these actions can sometimes take me by surprise. In order to make them real, I research them to death – and then forget it.
I swallow my research, digest it and then write from my gut. The research should, ideally, become as much a part of a character as one’s own history does, so that his reactions spring completely naturally from the person he is. The person he is should be obvious from the details of his life – where he lives, how he dresses, how he treats other people. It shouldn’t need to be explained.
My greatest challenge was in writing the second half of My Brother’s Book from the point of view of Tom. I had to become a man – and a man who was as unlike me as anyone could be.
He has his own quiet humour, but he takes a bit of getting to know. Had I met Tom, I would have fallen in love with him – I always had a weakness for austere and tortured.
All I can say is that I followed the same process. I sucked people dry of the experiences that mirrored Tom’s. I read the books Tom would have read, and absorbed myself in his spiritual life.
And, I must say, I’ve been around men enough to have a little fun with him. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the passage where his girlfriend tells him, in the middle of a game of rugby, that he needn’t accompany her somewhere – I won’t say where. It gives too many things away.
Tom absently thanks her, which causes her to dissolve into tears over the sink. Tom finds her tears totally bewildering. “But if you wanted me to come, why didn’t you just say so?”
“That would seem to be completely obvious,” she replies. “If I’d said that, you’d only have come because I wanted you to.”
Just because I’m not a campaigning writer, doesn’t mean issues don’t emerge through my characters. But I hope they emerge intuitively, without fanfare.
If you remain true to yourself and your characters, issues that ordinary people are dealing with in society will naturally emerge. In my first book, the child Kate is too full of hope, while her adult self feels herself incapable of it. I am probably more like the child Kate than her adult self, but I suppose both embody what I see as our bi-polar South African experience. We never plod along like other societies. We’re always in euphoria and despair.
My Brother’s Book deals with different truths. We are a society obsessed with truth-telling, yet we seem incapable of accepting that everyone has different truths to make sense of their lives.
Lily and Tom clash over the “truth” of their lives, and how it has formed them into such different people. Tom longs for a universal truth, but both cling to their individual “truths” that make it possible to face the people they’ve become, and the things they’ve done.
Different writers treat their characters differently. Writer, James Wood says that, generally, people tend to complain about characters being flat or unlikeable, or “not real”.
But then many post modern creations are “not real”. And writers like Houellebecq produce thoroughly unpleasant characters to show us things about ourselves and our society.
Not all characters are shown to us in great depth. EM Forster said of Charles Dickens: “Dickens’ people are nearly all flat … Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own.”
I believe it’s an effect of perspective and point of view. If a character is shown to us from the outside – using a fly on the wall perspective – inner life is implied. We are intrigued. We imagine it for ourselves.
(In poor Mrs Micawber’s aphorism: “I will never desert Mr Micawber”, we can see a touching depth of her need to keep up appearances at the expense of herself.
Through the deft brush strokes of a person’s sayings, or small telling details, we assume a depth of despairing inner life that need not be spelt out.)
Nonetheless, I believe that every writer needs to know their characters’ inner lives intimately, no matter how much they choose to reveal, and how much they leave to the reader to fill in.
Three of my four books were written in the first person, which allowed me a depth of inner life. I am comfortable in the first person, since I enjoy exploring uncomfortable aspects of my characters’ inner lives. That’s just my style.
Only one of my books was written in third person limited – only afterwards I realised that the point of view I’d intuitively chosen suited the characters.
We often treat characters like the people we meet. We like them if we can identify with them, if we respond emotionally to them. But books are different. Perhaps we should also judge characters on how they move us, by how compellingly they draw us into their world and into other lives.
Learn more about building characters on the Allaboutwriting Character Course. This four module course blends psychology and writing to create a unique plunge into the process of creating memorable and larger-than-life characters. It looks at the skills and insights needed to make these characters leap off the page.