- Richard Beynon
In an interview published in the Observer over the weekend, Ian McEwan talks about the genesis of his latest book, Sweet Tooth. It’s a cold war thriller set in the ‘70s, the decade in which McEwan came of age as a writer, but in which he’s never set a novel before.
Here, for me, is the most interesting thing he says in the interview. Speaking about how he got his story going, he says, “I just took up my green notebook and got Serena (that’s his central character) to start talking…”
Think about this. He wanted to hear his character talking. He wanted to hear her voice, he wanted to know what her opinions and prejudices were, he wanted to get under her skin.
That’s not a bad place to start. Getting to know your character. Listening to her. Unpacking her memories.
We devote one of the modules in our Creative Writing course to the development of characters, and we talk about the importance of working out their back stories.
But what McEwan’s talking about is more subtle than any heavy-handed construction of the character from the ground up. Just listen to her, he says.
It strikes me, also, that listening to your character would also be a clever strategy when you get stuck. Ask her advice! Find out what she’d suggest happens next, or what her response to the plot development you have in mind would be.
The fact is, sometimes our characters are too much our own creatures. We need to give them the respect they deserve as independent, albeit fictional, personalities.
We need to set them free.
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