I write because I literally cannot not write.
The characters in my head will not be silenced until I tell their stories. Their stories change (this is called redrafting), they have new stories, sometimes their stories contradict into a huge mess that I have to sort out, and then I give myself deadlines to tell them by and tear my hair out and lose sleep trying to meet them. Because the characters won’t shut up and give me a moment’s peace until I’ve written down what happened to them, what they did, and how it all affected them.
One of the moments that most makes me smile from my writing experiences to date is when my first beta reader got back to me about my work-in-progress novel, In Murder’s Shadow. I actually came quite late to crime fiction, I started getting into it properly in early 2006 through TV at first, and among the first things I watched were the later-period Taggarts (the ones where Taggart isn’t in them because the actor had died ten years earlier) with my grandma and Katherine, oldest of my many younger sisters. When I started to make a serious effort at rewriting In Murder’s Shadow I asked Katherine to beta-read for me and she agreed, and after she’d finished giving me some initial feedback I asked her if she’d spotted which character was a walking Taggart reference. After a moment’s thought, she said, ‘Oh! Is it McRobbie!’ I started grinning from ear to ear, because, although the character’s name isn’t actually McRobbie, he now meant something to someone else.
He existed to someone else.
He had a life outside my head.
Like most authors and writers, I got some fucked-up shit going on in there, and like most authors and writers I generally do a good job of hiding it, in my case by presenting a cheery, no-worries exterior to the world (an example I occasionally use to shock the good folk of Nanoland is the woman who gave birth to me telling me she wished I’d died in childbirth). But, like all authors and writers, who I am and how I act bleeds over into my characters. It influences them. To a greater or lesser degree, they’re a part of me.
Katherine said that she could see how each character was a reflection of me in some way. So I’m going to try and unpick some of that baggage (I’m also going to cheat by using characters from other fictional universes. On this site, I’ve only featured Paul Quinn and Sandi Hendriks so far – although I will focus more on them than on others).
Physically, I don’t usually write characters who resemble me. Paul is black and Sandi’s a woman, for starters. Although, it’s worth noting that I don’t tend to write tall characters much. Paul, at around six foot, is one of the giants of the group. An as-yet-unintroduced character, Jack Tyler, is a ridiculously good-looking ladies man, and he’s also the midget of the male characters, at five-nine. I don’t tend to do much physical description which is honestly mostly laziness, so we don’t really know what many of them look like, but only another as-yet-unintroduced character, Edward Price, has any physical features in common with me – brown hair, green eyes. He’s two inches taller than me at six-three though, doesn’t wear glasses, and is nearly twice my age. We share a Yorkshire accent, but whilst mine is slight, his is thick and noticeable. Even the character whose origins were as a deliberate self-insert in one story, to the point where his first name is Philip (mine’s Phillip) and has a last name starting with S, actually doesn’t look a thing like me. Although this was partly a cunning plan to disguise the fact that he was a self-insert by making him Hispanic.
No, I don’t go down the route of writing about a pale stale male who is inexplicably attractive to gorgeous glamorous women.
But, if you look at the way my characters behave, and their backstories, there are some real similarities. If I take the four characters I’ve mentioned so far, then Jack Tyler, the sexy ladies man, is probably the least like me. Sandi is probably the closest to me. But even Jack has his similarities. He is the eldest of several siblings (four in his case, six in mine), has a lot of cousins (I don’t actually know how many cousins my stepmum has. I kept Jack’s down to a manageable twenty), and has one parent that he doesn’t speak to (I swapped this round with Jack, he’s close to his mother and doesn’t speak to his father). Writing this, I’ve realised that he was the same age when his parents divorced as I was – thirteen.
That wasn’t a conscious decision. I knew he had three younger sisters, two of them were twins, and the age gap between himself and the twins was ten years. His parents had divorced before he left school, but that left every age from ten to eighteen open. And I settled on thirteen.
The parallels become even more obvious when you look at Paul and Sandi. Part of why they’re so close is that they’re actually quite similar people – both reserved, both with a small circle of close friends within a large number of acquaintances. And that’s a description that fits me very well. Paul has my never-let-‘em-see-you-bleed approach, and often defrays tension with humour (check). Sandi has a reflective approach to her work which often turns into self-doubt, and at times needs a lot of reassurance that she’s doing well (also check).
They both borrowed my ‘Unpleasant time at university,’ origins story. In Sandi’s case hers was always going to be unpleasant since she was raped at the end of her third year, but at one point she also had a cut-and-paste of some issues I had in my first year and was generally very lonely throughout her student life (just like meeeee). Paul’s own general loneliness at university was a later development, occurring during the redrafting of In Murder’s Shadow when I learnt that his reaction to his sister’s murder was to join the Staffordshire Police as a Special Constable. Since most students would be wary of a cop, even a part-time hobby-bobby, that was his social life mostly gone by… the end of his first year. Well, guess when mine basically ended?
Why was Paul joining the Staffordshire Police if he’s from North Wales? Because he went to Keele University. Why there? Why, because that’s where my ex went, and I spent almost as much time there as at wherever it was I went. I even snuck into the third year psychology course group photo.
Like most writers, I’ve used, adapted or changed real incidents that either happened to me, or which I know of, to flesh my characters out. This is just one example, but it came to me first while I was writing this post so I’m running with it; during In Murder’s Shadow Paul recalls carrying Leo Aldridge home one night with Leo, dressed as a Jedi Knight, demanding the rest of a chocolate fudge cake he’d eaten half of earlier in the evening, and Paul trying to talk him down using police negotiation tactics. This is based on a real thing. Well, no one was dressed as a Jedi Knight, but the fudge cake, and the police negotiation tactics, are real. Were real.
Paul generally follows the rules; so does Sandi. Sandi will happily bend and stretch rules as far as they will go, but dislikes outright breaking rules to the point where it’s almost an aversion. Again, just like me – I don’t even break the speed limit. I’ll exploit loopholes and technicalities and grey areas all day long, but I don’t and won’t ever outright break a rule. If there’s a 30 sign on the road, I go at 29 (and slower if you tailgate).
Paul and Sandi have both had long periods of singledom (check). Sandi’s preferred form of exercising is running (check). Sandi dislikes wearing formal clothes (check).
I’m going to be quite cautious about how I explain this now, but even with the serial killer in In Murder’s Shadow, there were aspects of my personality I was able to draw on and relate to him. In this case, to be completely clear, what I was drawing on for him was not any form of murderousness, directed at anyone at all. For the killer, murdering people is like an addiction, he gets a kick out of it. I don’t have any addictions, but I’ll usually eat any sweet thing in sight given half a chance, so that’s the experience I drew on to convey his experience of why he kills people. I, personally, have no desire to kill anyone, although if I did I’d totally get away with it, I’ve seen every episode of CSI and Criminal Minds ever so I could totally murder hundreds of people and make it look like Eeyore did it… I’ll just stop talking now.
Me and my characters have lots in common.
Does that make me the same person as them? Well, no. Even the character who’s a deliberate self-insert has evolved into a very different person. For starters he’s a police officer who’s married with three kids! He’s also the younger of two brothers, not the oldest of six sibs. He’s a Catholic, I’m not religious at all. As the story he’s in has become very different, his role has changed and adapted. Before, for instance, his partner was his best mate who’d been through the police academy with him. As it stands now, he’s just been assigned to train his cousin’s kid, when they respond to a school shooting and she ends up both killing one of the shooters and accidentally paralysing a student. He’s gone from providing a ‘My-eye,’ view on what had been a murder at a high school (I was 18 when I first drafted this, for context) to finding himself supporting a rookie cop developing PTSD after two days on the job (who he feels extra responsible for because she’s his cousin’s kid).
And none of that is anything I’ve ever gone through.
I’ve had some experiences of supporting people that I can draw from, but I’ve never been in a shoot-out in a school library, and I’ve never worked closely with anyone with PTSD.
There’s a bit of a trend, especially in literary fiction, towards authors writing characters who are almost entirely self-inserts. They’re the same age, race, and sex as the author, have similar jobs, and have had similar life experiences. And for me, fiction loses something when this occurs. Suddenly, we’re not taking people all around the world, to distant times and places, from a beach at sunset to a police interview room to the trenches of the Somme to a remote windswept mountain top, without them ever leaving home.
We’re telling them all about ourselves and what an interesting life we’ve had. And what I’ve learnt from knowing people who’ve had interesting lives is that they don’t constantly go on about what interesting lives they’ve had.
My characters live inside my head, until I tap at my keyboard and make them live inside yours. Of course they’re going to be reflections of me, to a greater or lesser degree. But they’re not, and shouldn’t be, me. I can draw on my own experiences to relate to the characters, and build on what I know to make them seem more real, but I’m not writing me. I’m writing Paul, or Sandi, or Jack, or Teddy, and they’re all very different people, who’ve had some very different life experiences to me. They reflect me at times, but they also reflect other people. One of the main inspirations for Sandi is my sister Katherine, but she’s not meant to be Katherine anymore than she’s meant to be me (and Katherine and I are very different people in many ways). She’s not even meant to be a combination of Katherine and I. She’s her own person, and developing and learning more about her is part of writing.
It’s part of the fun.
My characters might start out as a reflection of me, or spring from an experience I’ve had that I’m fictionalising to help me process it, but as I write them they grow and adapt and become new and different. They always draw on me to a greater or lesser degree, but they’re their own people by the time they reach you. That’s important. That’s where the writing goes from self-indulgent navel-gazing to Actual Fiction, and that’s hopefully where you draw your entertainment from.
Grounding them in, and relating them to, experiences I’ve had makes my characters seem more real, feel more believable, narrate what they go through with more authenticity. But the links between my experiences and theirs are often tenuous. And it’s when my characters grow and adapt in response to what I throw at them, when they start to develop their own personalities entirely and people who know me wonder where on earth such-and-such a person came from, that they come into their own and become worth reading about.
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