As part of the release of my novel, Nicolai’s Daughters, I’ve been doing readings in various locations both close to home and further away.
I love meeting new people and getting to know them, love hearing their comments, love their many questions, just plain love all human interaction, particularly since my work typically requires I toil alone. This is such a hard thing to do for someone like me who is so − how do I put this − social. Others might say, talkative. I think the ability to form and maintain relationships is such a gift. But I digress.
I give a great deal of thought to every question that is asked of me and of my novel during these reading events, wonder later if I could have provided a better answer, tell myself I’ll do better next time, and basically try to learn from every experience. There are, however, some questions that come up time and time again that simply won’t let me go. One such question: how do you develop your characters? Initially I stumbled on this. I’d talk about writing and rewriting, research, doing character mock ups, listening for a particular tick in speech a character might display. Basically I didn’t really know, or perhaps hadn’t given it much thought, but with all the arm waving I did when I responded to this question, I thought I was convincing. Maybe. As I’ve thought of this question more, I’ve been able to streamline my response (haven’t given up on the arm waving though): I’m not so sure I develop my characters as much as they find me and insist on being uncovered. This happens usually when I’m minding my own business and doing something else.
A few years ago, well maybe more than a few years ago, I wrote a short story about a female suicide bomber from Chechnya. I’ve never been to Chechnya nor do I know any suicide bombers personally. But shortly after the London bombings, as I sat watching the news (yes, being a news junkie is another one of my many vices) I wondered what could possibly motivate the perpetrators to carry out such an attack. Almost immediately (or at least in hindsight, this is how it seemed to happen) a voice came into my head, complete with accent, a history, fears, joys, triumphs and challenges. She had a story she wanted told. And she refused to leave until I wrote it. I was working on another project at the time, but that voice would not let me go. It took me months to write and rewrite that story and the character stayed with me the entire time, whispering in my ear, adamant I get it right.
I had the same thing happen in Nicolai’s Daughters with a character named Achilles. He was to be a walk on walk off oddity, someone who would remind my main protagonist, Alexia, that she was in Greece and no longer in Canada. But then his name popped up in a scene between Nicolai (my other protagonist) and his mother some 20 years earlier. Nicolai had just returned to Greece after his wife had died. I remember typing: Nicolai said, “Do you know if Achilles is still here?”. I don’t remember thinking about Achilles at the time, my fingers typed his name and there he was again. He had a story of his own to tell (Alexia, Nicolai and Theodora, my main protagonists, be dammed). Achilles wouldn’t budge, there was no way he was going to be a sacrificial second-string player in this novel.
Now before you call your mental health specialist and insist I get help, let me elaborate if I can, quickly, with more insistent arm flapping.
I think in questioning what goes on around me, and in trying to understand why we do what we do (the good, bad, messy and totally ugly), I find my characters and their stories. I’m not judgemental, not in fiction or in life. My goal in all my stories (or at least the better ones) is to flash a clear and unwavering light on the lives of my characters, and search for the redeemable qualities in my most dastardly. In fact, I don’t stop writing until I comb and document the tiniest crumb of goodness. I’m in love, you see, with my characters, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears, their goodness, their badness, and their needy humanity. Perhaps this is why they talk to me. I’m happiest when they talk to me. It makes my work easier and it enriches my imaginary life.
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