In the How I Write series, our Crime Cymru authors share their insights into the writing process. This week, Myfanwy Alexander asks the fascinating question about whether characters are created or discovered, and then what happens once you let them have their say.
Character Building by Myfanwy Alexander
You know the bit in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ when the super-orcs made by the wizard Sauruman are revealed in their slimy sacs, hacked out of the rock? I have come to realise that this is how I feel about the characters in my novels, not that I have created them but that, in some sense, I have discovered them, brought them out into the light. This presupposition that they exist independently is, on the face of it, totally bonkers, given that they are the fruit of my imagination but it is also very useful, lending the character an authentic dynamism. It could be said that I expend a great deal of effort in the creation of my characters, then place them in situations where, in order to be true to their nature, there is only one course of action open to them. In other words, I hand the steering wheel over to them, and see where we end up. It can bring unexpected turns, but it is one heck of a ride.
Having written a good deal for radio, the voice comes first. The rich vocabulary of dialect words in Welsh can be very helpful, creating a guy-rope which fastens a character to their roots but needs caution because cliché is always lurking there. It can be fruitful to ask why a character speaks in a certain way but also how did they speak? Have they modified the ways they present themselves to the world, and why?
My characters’ voices have a lot of work to do in my dialogue-heavy tales so I’m often looking to discover what they would say if they didn’t have anything particularly significant to say. It could be said that the vocabulary of any crisis is too tight to allow much space for subtle display so I like to know how my characters would sound if I stood behind them in the queue at the Londis. (I have no idea why the Londis merits its definite article, but it always does, at least around here.) A good starting point can be the lower-grade obsessions of a character, not the dark drivers of lust, revenge and desperation but the itches of choice, their fondness for Ry Cooder, their dislike of green cabbage, their attempts to access streaming services on the passwords of others. These peculiarities will hopefully chime in with my readers’ cultural reference points, generating useful shortcuts. If I state that my detective has a new young colleague who is obsessed with Disney films, the reader will already be thinking of him as young for his age and a little naïve, his eagerness to please overlaying a set of assumptions which can be fulfilled or contradicted to enrich the texture of the story. I have to rein myself in with these particularities because, as my editor says, these details don’t necessarily drive the narrative forward and I keep a Jane Austen novel within my line of sight when I am writing, to remind me of my own limitations. Austen had the rare gift of making her tedious characters highly entertaining but that is a very tough trick to pull off and it’s far more likely that my character’s boring qualities are a leaden weight on the narrative: I need keeping in check. And there is such a thing as too much colour: I was given a very firm note about the detailed description of a whist drive.
When I am convinced my character has accreted a real sense of self, I am reluctant to let them go. I am currently working on the fifth of my Daf Dafis novels, which has developed into something of a family saga as well as a series of stand-alone murder mysteries and the location of this fifth story means that characters from previous books are thronging my desk, demanding inclusion. I am having to be very firm with them but the wretches have been breezing in with significant clues required to drive the narrative secreted about their persons. I am trying to give them the brush-off, but they are not going anywhere so I have had to yield. A character from my second novel has been admitted, partly because his personal qualities fit the requirements of the story but also because several readers have asked me to provide him with a happy ending. I won’t go that far, but they can have a glimpse of him, to check on how he’s doing. That is the tension then, to balance the importunities of the old friends whilst generating new and, hopefully, engaging characters.
For newcomers and old-stagers, names are vital. I have given myself a limited palette by writing about rural mid-Wales: when I was in the 6th Form, Joneses and Davies made up 70% of the class. Luckily, the thriving nickname culture gives me colourful options: my detective grew up in the village grocers’ shop, so he is as likely to be called Davey Shop as Inspector Davies. By naming his little daughter not just Mali, but Mali Haf, he is declaring his intention that she should sing in eisteddfodau. It may be that my readers will never know that Bound is a Radnorshire name, but I know, so a feisty woman who loves her farm and her father way more than her husband just has to be called Nell Bound.
For a joyous decade, I worked on a radio series with, amongst others, the best actress in Wales. She demanded motivation for every line she spoke, even in a sketch where she merely remarked upon the weather. It was infuriating but also important and the lesson she taught me has served me well. We are often told that the Holy Grail of good writing is the character-driven narrative and the habit of thinking my characters through, viewing them from all angles means that every one of them is pushing the story forward. Of course, the histories, peculiarities and obsessions of the major characters are the main engine driving the plot but every voice matters, ever footfall resonates. Which means I had best work out how the lad on the fresh fruit stall came to be in Builth Wells on that hot Tuesday afternoon, selling a Melon Medley to Dyfed Powys Police’s most intuitive and experienced detective. Work experience? Family fruiters? Migrant worker? The fruit seller may be only a minor note in the composition, but he shouldn’t be flat.
Read more about Myfanwy Alexander
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