5th October, 2012
Somewhere in a graveyard in Liverpool there is a gravestone bearing the name of Eleanor Rigby. Paul McCartney doesn't believe he has ever seen it, but it gives me a nice seque into the question of where an author finds his or her characters. (By the way, just as an aside, I sometimes get introduced to people as an "authoress." It makes me want to reach out and clip that person around the earhole - as my aged aunt used to say - because it seems a bit diminutive. I remind myself that a lioness is no less of a lion, but somehow in the term "authoress" seems hidden some surprise that a woman should be writing at all. Like a fish riding a bicycle. Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Anyway.)
I suppose characters come from all over the place, even graveyards, but my advice to anyone who knows an author (or authoress) well is to watch out. Snape, that infamous character in Harry Potter, was based on a mean-spirited teacher that JK Rowling once had (he says, "I knew I was strict, but not that bad" - the happy ending of that tale is that he cashed in on his infamy by writing a book about some of the places from JK Rowling's childhood. His name was John Nettleship, which is almost as good a name as Snape.)
So I am not the only authoress who gives in to the temptation to get back at some of the less savoury characters in her life. They just pop up whenever you reach for a name for an antagonist. Just saying. You know who you are, and you are invariably male and in a position of authority.
As for the good characters, the same probably applies. Beth in Little Women was based on a friend of Alcott's who was commonly know as "Elizabeth the Wise." Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on his childhood friend. It's just so much easier to write about someone you don't have to invent. Once you have tucked them into your story, they already have a personality, and you don't have to wonder how they would react in a given situation or how their face would look. In one of my books, I pretty much took a professor I had as an undergraduate (a nice one) and stuck him straight into the narrative wholesale. I made him more colourful, but he was already quite a personality in himself.
So far, I have rarely managed to create a protagonist who didn't think like me. I suppose I must not be very creative. I did try in my last novel, and even gave her the name of a childhood friend, but she didn't act like that friend or think like that friend. She didn't even really look like that friend (or me) but the things coming out of her mouth sounded like me. I don't know if every authoress (or author) has this problem, if it is a problem. I imagine that Kathy of Wuthering Heights was every bit like Emily Bronte, and Sylvia Plath bore a strict resemblance to her protagonist in The Bell Jar. We're exorcising our demons, I suppose.
But whatever the cause or result, I will probably keep on doing it. It's not a question of being lazy, more just what you do when you set out on a journey: sit down in the driver's seat and hand-pick a few friends (or not, as the case may be) to walk the path with you.