Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill

Part 2: Characters

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
– Ernest Hemmingway

In the space of time it takes to read a book, the reader comes to know a character, to discover his or her strengths and flaws, fears and dreams, to make a friend or find a foe. For every hour that the gentle reader spends this way, the author must spend many days discovering the person they have created. The process by which each author does this varies from those who first map the terrain, plan the route and mark all forks in the road, to those who set out with seemingly no preparation but a curiosity as to what they might find.

I am of the latter.

For me, writing is a kind of glorious madness, a descent into the world in my head where I am the figment, the ghost, the imaginary observer. It is a seductive world which I leave only reluctantly to engage with the real world to which I was born.

The relationships between writers and their protagonists are intriguing, not for the least part, because they can be so varied in intensity and quality. There are writers who insist their protagonists are merely literary constructs, and others who set a place at the table for the hero/heroine of their latest novel.

I have known my imaginary gentleman sleuth, Rowland Sinclair, for six books now, two years of his life, four years of mine. In that time he has stood in the periphery of my vision, regarding me with a kind of amused resignation, watching me as I watch him. We have an understanding, he and I.

With each book I have come to know Rowland Sinclair more intimately, made discoveries about his past and his nature. I have created circumstances and watched his reaction and out of this I have cobbled a story. He is now, all but real to not just me, but also my family. My husband and I will often talk about Rowland as if he were an old friend with a tendency of finding trouble. You know the kind. We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Rowland’s actions, as if those actions were fact. Every now and then, I hear our conversations as a third party might, and find myself both alarmed and vaguely embarrassed by the extent to which this figment of my imagination has insinuated himself into our lives. But I reassure myself that I am a writer, and as such, a certain level of delusion is not only acceptable, but possibly necessary.

It is not uncommon for a writer to gain new insight into their own work through reviewers or readers, who point out nuances and themes which we ourselves haven’t noticed. Of course, we’re usually quite happy to claim them after the fact. Because I write without plotting, I am regularly surprised at the serendipity with which the details of my narratives fall into place. Idiosyncrasies introduced on whim to add colour to a character in chapter one, by chapter thirty prove pivotal to the motivation or essence of that character, as if I had laid the thread on purpose.

Both the above, I think, owe more to the storyteller’s subconscious than they do to chance or luck.

There are many things we do as writers for reasons about which we not consciously aware, but which have a purpose and a design nonetheless. Somewhere in our subconscious is stored everything we know and have read, every revelation of research, every image, every sound and every feeling. It’s not surprising then that this is cradle of our creativity, where stories are born. The writer’s trick is tapping into that and then trusting it.

This is all the more true for the creation and development of protagonists. A fit-to-purpose character, designed to serve the plot or the zeitgeist of the time, or moulded to appeal to some demographic or other, often comes across as two dimensional or somehow fails to seize a reader’s heart and loyalty. Sometimes, in order to give a protagonist authenticity it’s necessary to allow him some privacy.

I’m currently writing my seventh novel around Rowland Sinclair. With each successive book of the series, readers have discovered a little more about him, as have I. In order for that to be possible I have to be content to not know everything about him, to discover him bit by bit as circumstances arise, the way one would come to know a person in life. It means that on occasion I allow in subplots that seem to have nothing to do with the current narrative and trust that they will in time reveal something about the man at the centre of my books. I also resist the writer’s compulsion to explain everything, to be consistent at all costs. Human beings sometimes behave in ways that are inexplicable, unexpected and irrational.   The writer’s craft involves introducing this element of humanity sparingly, at the right point and in a manner that does not break the illusion of the narrative, but enhances it.

My personal process involves populating my books with people who interest me. Much of the excitement which surrounds a character comes from the element of surprise, from not knowing exactly how he will react, what he will do. This is true for the writer as well as the reader. The sense of pace and tension in my writing is not something I consciously create, but comes from the fact that I am invested in and engaged with the characters at play. I care about them and want to know how things will come out for them; if and how they will escape the particular situation in which I’ve put them. It’s not that I couldn’t create that same sense if I knew exactly what they would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be something that would happen as spontaneously and naturally as it seems to now.

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That is not to say that Rowland Sinclair is without form—a vague literary construct in a three piece suit. He has emerged from my knowledge of the era into which he was born, my observations of human beings encountered long before I ever thought of writing, my aspirations for the kind of men I want my sons to grow to be, my personal haphazard, anecdotal and unscientific knowledge of humanity. We share a love of painting and sketching, and though Rowland’s skill with a brush far surpasses mine, I understand how he sees the world—as compositions and portraits. I know what’s fundamental to Rowland, what he values, what he fears. But I don’t always know why he values those things. The discovery of why often serves a double purpose in moving forward a plot and revealing character in a manner that is both intriguing and natural.

So, strangely, my method for developing characters runs counter to the popular wisdom which encourages writers to know their imaginary people thoroughly, which advocates detailed backstories and character profiles. I prefer to discover my protagonist through the story itself, to allow him the freedom of unexpected conduct, the ability to change and mature. The result, I hope, is a character that is closer to the reality of the human condition and who can therefore engage readers in a manner that a literary construct, however well designed, cannot.

4 thoughts on “Discovery through Story

  1. Hi Sulari, I really enjoyed that. Characters are tricksy little hobbitses sometimes! I have had some that I can’t always unfurl as soon as I come up with them.

  2. Thank you Ashleigh. I do become very attached to the characters that take a while to unfurl – it’s like a friendship that’s grown slowly over years, you have a lot of time invested! Good luck with your hobbitses!

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