Character Origins: Mark Leyland talks about creating believable characters.

All writers get asked where stuff comes from – book ideas, stories, characters and so on – and it’s not a question I find that straightforward. Some writer friends tell me they find character inspirations in real people from their lives. They may change aspects of the live person to fit what they have to do in the book but basically Joe Goodguy is the author’s Uncle Dan, reacting in the ways they know Uncle Dan would react. I do this sometimes – the character of Jody in Cloudforest is based directly on a kid I knew – but very rarely.


We can do the same thing with fictional people, characters we’ve got to know through other books or seen in movies. And why not base a character on James Bond, say, or Jason Bourne? – they’ve done well enough for their creators. Again this is something I do occasionally. Kamli in The Nail was inspired by a movie character but by that character’s situation not her personality. It’s fun to ask the question: what would happen if a different kind of person got involved in events like those? Of course she’d react in different ways and that’s interesting to explore and write about.


But if I ‘very rarely’ do this and ‘occasionally’ do that, where do my other characters come from? The answer is: they just come to me, and as long as they keep doing this when I need them, I don’t worry too much about the where or the how. Suddenly, inside my head, is a story that needs to be told, needs to be written down and read. Almost always, the main character arrives along with that story, more or less fully-formed, defined by the world and situation they find themselves in at the start of the book and the life they lived before the story began. I don’t plan out a detailed personal history for them as some authors do. They bring this with them and it stays in the back of my mind, just as it is for the characters themselves. What’s in the front is whatever’s going on in the book right now.


It’s not necessarily just the main character who’s around from the very start – there may be a whole bunch of them. In Slate Mountain, main character Ros arrived as usual with the book idea. Gwyn, her principal bully, and Doc, the annoying nerd who wants to be her friend, came along with her, their relationships with Ros already developed. The kids from history who complete the ‘team’ showed up later when Ros first met them in the slate mine, and those relationships grew in the way real relationships do, as she got to know them.


It was different with Shari, the main character of The Nail. Among other things, this book is about pivots of history, people, places and times. How a certain person can change their world if the chance comes to them. As a pivot-person, Shari is as important to my book as she is to her world and I wanted to start by getting to know her from outside, just as you and I, when reading any book, have to do with all its characters. So when the book-idea came, I knew Shari was the main character but not much else about her.


I knew plenty about Empire Inspector Dravoi and Lord Monash though – they came fully-formed with the idea for The Nail – and it was through their eyes I first met this ragged child who had just lived through an event that killed almost everyone she knew. As a result, she wasn’t exactly bursting to tell us about herself. A strong and self-possessed little girl who had survived a massacre – that was pretty well all I knew at that point. As the book progressed, she grew. As she became more comfortable with her new surroundings, she opened up. And I gradually got to know her in the same way the characters around her did, the same way you do as you read the book. Just like getting to know a real person.


At last, in the middle of a catch-ball game, a door was opened. I allowed myself to step inside her head for the first time and see her world through her eyes – and of course the reader gets to do the same thing at just the same moment. At that point I suddenly knew a whole lot more about her and the reader gets to share what I know – as much of it as I can and as soon as I can. During the game and the incident which follows, you see a lot more of what makes up this odd child, start to understand how she thinks and discover the personality which will carry her through the long hard journey ahead.


Is there a fundamental difference between main characters like Shari or Ros and the folk around them who make up their world, like Gwyn, who’s there from the start of Slate Mountain, or Adam, who Ros meets later in the mine? In terms of origins, usually not. All these people arrive as I need them, I accept that gratefully and don’t ask too many questions.


But there is a difference still. In every scene, as you read, you get to see things through the eyes of one main character. In the catch-ball game, it’s Shari, in Slate Mountain it’s Ros all through the book. It’s the same for me as I write – when I’m inside a character’s head, I know what they know: their history, their hopes and expectations, their likes and dislikes, the questions that trouble them. I know it and I share as much as I can with the reader.


For those others though, people like Gwyn and Adam, you and I never get to go inside their heads and we see of them what Ros sees, know what she knows. I need to know a little bit more than that, because when Ros asks them questions, I need to know how they will react. But this ‘little bit more’ sits firmly in the back of my mind as I write. The front of my mind is always that main character and what’s in their mind.


Going back to that first question: where are they from, these different kinds of characters? They may come to us because we’re consciously trying to work out the solution to some problem, or they may arrive through a more mysterious subconscious process – like those times when we go to sleep worrying over a problem and wake up knowing the answer. Either way they must come from the body of our memories and experience. What I’m doing can’t be entirely different from taking a single real person or fictional character as a basis for my characters. But each new person in my books is a unique concoction, cooked up by some subconscious chef from the rich mental broth of all those people I’ve known in my life or read about or seen on the screen.


I’m lucky it happens this way. Too often I read books and watch movies with characters just like the ones in books and movies I read and watched yesterday, last week, last year, maybe because they are all based on James Bond or Jason Bourne. I hope for my characters to be a little bit different, the choices they make to be a little bit less obvious. Meet Shari, get to know her the same way I did, then live her life through her eyes. I’d bet she’s not quite like anyone you’ve met before. Real people never are.

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