The characters that call me

I’ve given a lot of thought to what happens to my characters when I’ve finished with them, but less so to where they come from.  There is a host of advice available to writers on how to create and develop characters, but I must confess to ignoring it.  I’ve only ever written the most rudimentary character profiles.  Unless it’s particularly relevant to a story, I couldn’t tell you what my characters like to eat, what type of music they listen to or their favourite colour.  I don’t create idendikits of my characters, instead, they seem to emerge almost fully formed.

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As I described in my writing process blog hop post, I see characters visually, attached to a particular location and moment in time.  Their appearance and many of their characteristics are set, then I add layers, as their back story and their future emerges.  But I have wondered, if I don’t exactly create these characters, then where do they come from?  There’s a great video of author Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds at the moment, in which she talks about the ancient Roman meaning of ‘genius’ as an aspect of the soul or spirit through which our creativity comes.  From this perspective, the stories are already there, waiting for us to channel them.  So what’s interesting to me is whether these characters already exist in the ether and each one of us is predisposed to find those that are right for us.

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Of course, if this is the case, then you might expect the writing process would be easier than it often is.  And if they do already exist, what is their purpose?  Are there stories each individual is ‘meant’ to tell because they help that individual on their journey or because they are the right person to share them with the world?  I do believe that spirits (those Genii again, in Roman terms) are all around us – that each place, each thing, has it’s own spark.  So perhaps the characters I tap into are an aspect of those spirits of place.  Then again, maybe the whole process is much more mundane and my imagination is just quick to ascribe a type of character to a particular place.  Ultimately, it’s not something I really want to know the answer to.  Writing is a kind of magic and it makes sense that there’s a little mystery to how that magic happens.

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My thoughts about where characters come from were prompted by being tagged by two bloggers to take part in blog hops.  Sheri de Grom passed on the baton for the writing process blog hop and Evelyne Holingue for the meet my characters blog hop.

Evelyne Holingue was born in Normandy but has lived in the US for more than twenty years.  She writes in both French and English on her blog and I’m often surprised that English isn’t her first language, as her prose has a rich, sensual flow to it that I love.  She writes on a wide range of subjects, including writing and life.  Her young adult novel ‘Trapped in Paris’ is available from Amazon.

Sheri de Grom is another woman with a rich personal history.  She has worked as a military attorney and book buyer for Barnes and Noble, and many of her most touching and powerful posts concern her role as a mental health advocate, as a result of caring for her husband who has been diagnosed as bipolar.

I hope you’ll take a little detour to visit both Sheri and Evelyne.  I’ve already written about my writing process in a previous post here, so in this post, I’ll talk about some of my characters.

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I’d like to introduce you to a mother and daughter: Alice and Bethan.  Both are fictional characters who stepped out of the sea fret when I considered the location and the story I wanted to tell.    Their story is set in the present on a small island in the north sea, reached by a causeway from the mainland.  The island is dominated by a lighthouse and an inn, which the women run.  It’s an enchanted place, where the human inhabitants live alongside ghosts and selkies, a race of beings who live their lives as seals, but, on the night of the winter solstice take human form and dance all night.  The island is a real place, pictured above.  It has a rich and interesting history, elements of which are incorporated into the story.  There is no inn here now, but there was in years gone by.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the ghosts and the selkies are real or fictional…
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Bethan is her island.  From the moment she is born, she is part of it, as much at home in the sea as on the land.  Alice, on the other hand, seems to hate the island and is cold towards her daughter.  But both are harbouring secrets that ultimately tear them apart.  When her sister drowns in strange circumstances, Bethan, depressed and suicidal, is sent away by her mother, first to an institution, then to live in the city with her dad, far away from her childhood home.  There, she forgets the enchantments of the island.  Just before her dad dies, he tells Bethan that he isn’t her real father and that she should go home.  Bethan returns, twenty years after she left, to find out who she really is.
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The novel is called The skin of a selkie.   As for when it will be published, who knows?  I want to try the traditional route first and I’m currently at the query stage and waiting for replies from agents.
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And now for those I want to introduce you to, who will hopefully take on the baton to continue the meet my character blog hop:
Cecilia Carelse writes about the craft of writing.  She is in the process of writing her third novel, while her second is in the query process.  She covers a range of subjects about the craft of writing and keeping going through doubt and procrastination.
Sarah Potter writes speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy.  On her blog, she also shares her haiku and tanka poetry, photos, thoughts and interviews with other writers.  Sarah has recently nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.
Chris Edgar has written and produced the animated musical web series ‘Steve’s Quest’, of which episode 1 has been released.  It has won a ‘best short’ award and been selected for showings at a couple of film festivals.  He has also recently released an album, ‘Slow Burn’, which is available on iTunes.
Britt Skrabanek is a life enthusiast and indie author who shares inspiring posts on a wide range of subjects as well as introducing us to other life enthusiasts.  Her books ‘Beneath the satin gloves’ and ‘Everything’s not bigger’ are available on Amazon.  She is currently completing her third novel.
Last but certainly not least, I’d like to introduce you to another kind of selkie, as she recently nominated me for an award.  New England Selkie is an animal health professional and marine mammal volunteer who lives in Maine and loves Scotland.  Given the subject of my novel, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the Selkie’s blog and I was pleased to find beautiful writing on nature, the sea and many other things.

 

Renewal

SAMSUNG CSCSummer is slowly fading in the forest.  Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation.  The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone.  Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been.  The birds are muted and difficult to see.  The bats are invisible.  The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees.  A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones.  Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless.  But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.

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Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived.  But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads.  They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers.  Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.

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To me, September has always been a time of transformation.  Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter.  But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July.  Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come.  And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives.  It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn.  I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.

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I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation.  Transformation is the thing I love about stories.  Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it.  I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale.  This is the joy of reading.  To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being.  And it’s the joy of creation.  To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.

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Nature offers us spectacular transformations.  The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet.  But for us, the transformation is often quieter.  We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become.  When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent.  When we’re older, we often resist it.  We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.

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But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort.  We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations.  So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.

All the worlds in my head

I live with a small universe of imaginary worlds in my head.  All of the places I’ve written about and all of the characters that inhabit them, continue to exist when I’m finished with them.  I wonder what happens to these worlds when I’m not thinking about them.  I suspect that they wait suspended, at particular moments, because when I think of a story, or a character, I always think of them at the same point in time.

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There is an old woman, sitting on a stone bench in a winter garden; an old man, cobbling shoes in a small cottage in a place that might be heaven; a young woman, standing on the edge of a causeway, waiting to cross to an island beyond.  These are all stories that I’ve written and the points in time at which I think about them.  I can visualise them in detail, without any effort.  I think of them and they’re there, in my head.  Yet none of those points in time are at the story’s beginning, or at its end.  They’re not necessarily even the most significant scenes, but are the moments in time where the characters seem to live.

And then there are all the stories I’m yet to write, even those that are only the barest idea of a narrative.  They are there too, waiting for their turn.  I can see a woman weaving in an abandoned house.  I know something of her history and something of the future I have planned for her, but until I finish her story, she waits, stuck in a single moment.

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My characters don’t seem to want anything from me: they don’t cajole or plead to have their stories continued or told.  They’re simply there, waiting for me.  But maybe when I’m not paying attention, they do carry on their lives, independently.  Perhaps they do strange and unexpected things when my attention is elsewhere, rebelling furiously against their creator.  And then, when I think about them once more, they trick me, by being exactly where I expect them to be, as though playing grandmothers footsteps.  I imagine the characters from all my different stories banding together and creating new narratives of their own.  But just as easily, I can imagine them trapped in separate worlds, trying to move on but never succeeding.

There’s a theory that says that time doesn’t exist as we know it – that the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously.  And there’s a school of thought that says there are many worlds happening all at once, where our lives are slightly different depending on the time frame we’re in.  I wonder if these characters and these worlds are just that: different parts of me, living some of the lives I might have lived in a different time or place.

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But what of the characters whose stories will never be finished?  Jesse, the new-age traveller that I wrote about when I was a teenager still sits forlornly on a moonlit riverbank somewhere.  He will sit there forever, never knowing how his story ends.  The nameless blonde girl, watching strange lights in a cornfield from her window will always watch, never knowing what they mean.  Sometimes I feel a little sad that I’ve created characters that will never have an ending to their story.  Perhaps there should be a place where writers can send their unfinished characters – a kind of character orphanage – where they’ll be adopted by the perfect author to give them a story of their own.

Of course I’m talking about my characters as though they’re real beings, who can think, feel and rebel, when we all know they’re only collections of words.  But are they?  If that is all they are, how can they ever be real to a reader?  We spend hours agonising over them, naming them, discovering their likes, dislikes and motivations.  We put a lot of energy into making them real, so maybe in some sense, they are.  There’s some debate among witches about whether goddesses and gods really exist as separate entities in themselves.  One view says that all gods are one god and that these deities are just convenient personifications of different traits.  Another theory says that humans have worshipped them for so long that, in effect, our thoughts and our energy has created them.  If this is true, could this ever happen with the characters we create?  Thousands of years from now, will Harry Potter be a god?

I know my characters too well to ever worship them, or expect anyone else to.  All the same, I find it comforting to think that while I gave them life, somewhere, they can carry on living without me.

Do your characters live on when you’ve finished with them?  What are they doing while you’re not there?