Left, Right, Left, Right: Character!by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2000
One of the most common questions asked of a writer is: where do your characters come from, how do you make them live and breathe? Why do some characters come to us as rich and real, vibrant, but others as dull, uninteresting, or worse, stereotypes, stock characters, or sadder still, as cold chess-pieces manipulated by plot, devoid of humanity?
Sometimes I'm tempted to say, "I don't know" when asked where do I find my characters. I'm also tempted to say I don't know how I make them live -- let's maintain the myths, let's keep up the pretence that fiction writers are crystals, channels from the unknown, mediums for the muse. Sometimes I think lying would be easier. It certainly makes my profession sexier, no bad thing at a party...
But we do know where characters come from, and I know how to make them live. It's easy. All my characters are me and all the people I've known, little bit of this, little bit of that, a lie here, a truth there, some good points, some bad.
I can see my mother, my father, my sisters, my brother, myself, all of us oozing from the pages of anthologies, seeping from literary magazines. I can see John F Kennedy, an old girlfriend, my children, wives I & II, John Wayne, an ancestor, all-sepia and wrinkles spotted on a journey to the Welsh Valleys, cousins, friends, teachers, Furillo from Hill Street Blues, a cow in a field, a magician, a killer, a drill-sergeant, a soccer-player, half the bouncing people from an aerobics class, the people I might have been, the man I'd like to be.
I have been (and later, this is the crucial point). I have been my mother (or someone my mother gave me the idea for), I've been an old lady with a magic credit card, a car-salesman accused of rape, a young woman cop called Caz, a prairie-dog, an ex rugby-player dying of heart-failure (then I became his wife), a vicious, selfish investigative journalist, a man in a coma, a Welsh archer at Agincourt, a psychopath, a woman in her late forties finally coming to terms with an incest-ravaged childhood, and so it goes. I am me, people like me, my family, people like my family, characters from books and films, characters like them.
And every one is a mixture of my memories, my dreams, my self-image, my mood, memory and image piling on memory and image, appearing almost spontaneously, demanded by the point (theme) of my stories, and all, always, filtered through my psyche, that same psyche which has been shaped by all those memories and images.
My story at Atlantic Monthly Unbound, Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty Ernie the Egg -- where does a title like that come from, where do the characters come from, where does the mix come from and how do they come to exist, to be alive, to gain reality?
Well, firstly I'm Welsh, born in Wales of a Welsh father and an Irish mother, so I'm steeped in the myths of the Celtic race, the boon and scourge of coal mining, the lilt of valleys talk, the suspicion of the English, the near-hatred of Tory politics, the tragic sense of going underground to earn enough to feed our children. And I've swallowed the clichés, the stereotypes, read How Green Was My Valley, watched the red-shirted Welsh rugby team demolish England...
And I'm a Jones, part of a family network, fruit of the family-tree: I have heard the family stories, seen the pictures of fathers, grandfathers, their fathers, men of depth and character -- one a philandering Deacon, another a hero, one lost in a pit, one saved. All these things and a million more have helped to form my psyche, one shaped and mis-shaped by the real and the fictional, the truth and the lies of my history. It's a mess in there, seething, worms, acid, heat and light, occasional beauty. But it's all me, not you. Never in a million years can you get to think my thoughts, no-one can get as close as I to the absolute and unique, never-to-be-repeated me of my me-ness. Just how lucky are we all to each be given a unique insight into life? No doubt a 99% incorrect insight, a false view, a distorted, twisted, misled view, but no less beautiful for all that. The trick is expressing that unique world-view.
In my articles here, especially on plot and theme, I've talked about how approaching a story head-on, making decisions, thinking with the left side of the brain, deciding, arranging, almost always produces a less-rich, less-unpredictable result, in the worst cases, just more me-too work, full of the signalled stereotypicality of much of genre writing. The trick to avoiding this is to find a way to be surprised. The trick is to access the psychic soup.
Writers of the romantic bent, those who wish to keep pretending they are connected to the Gods, may talk to us of the muse, the muses, those ladies of the unknown who sit in the cosmos somewhere doling out their favours. Not me. I don't believe in fiction-fairies. Instead I believe that deep within everyone of us are all-things-beautiful and all-things-dark. I believe that when something comes to us which seems amazing -- a gift -- it's because we've accessed those places we don't easily access, the place where all our inconsistencies continually interact making sense of our liquid nonsenses.
We're all a mess. We weren't programmed to look directly at the sun or directly into the slow whirlpool of our ever-connecting and reconnecting memories, fears, hopes, dreams. For those of us who try to look, the mind has worked out lots of diversions. It even knows ways to trick us into thinking we've dodged the sentinels. We don't. We can't. It's like wanting to be inside the chemical reactions which power the heart. No can do, no can go.
But we can allow the inner workings to affect us. We can put ourselves into the mode where the threshing sluices leak upwards. We do it automatically every day when we are simply being, we live as manifestations of id, ego, super-ego, so why not use the same technique to "be" through our characters?
Previously I've mentioned that as writers we create a character and a problem. Plotting writers, knowing how they want their results to go, also invent the solution. Now if I, a Welshman, 50, decide for my character, a young English policewoman, a Peruvian tribesman, how in Heaven's name can I expect authenticity, naturalness, believability, surprise? From outside, from a crude male perspective I'm supposed to "understand" Caz Flood, and coldly as an observer I'm going to fairly represent her inner-being? Impossible!
Caz is supposed to be a human being, with all the complexities, plusses, minuses, inconsistencies I have. (She's better looking though...) If I am going to do her justice, I have to find a way to look at her world (the fictional situation I invented) through her eyes.
And that is what I do. I don't make Caz's decisions. I invent situations and immerse Caz in them, but then I stop being the writer and become Caz. I go with Caz, I try to think like Caz. I am Caz.
Working from outside, nothing is ever a surprise, nothing ever shocks, everything is artificial. But from the inside, literally living, breathing, thinking as Caz, I have no idea what "I" will decide. Suddenly I'm in a new world, exciting, surprising, but most importantly, totally real and honest.
In my third crime novel, Kingfisher, Caz is part of a team sent to flush some "heavy-duty" villains from a house into a waiting trap. The squad expects the villains to run and they should run after them, but like all those with still-pretty faces, Caz and her colleagues aren't overly keen to actually catch the villains. When I was writing the scenes, the totality of my plotting involved placing the team at the front door, ready to make a noise. Stop. That was it! I developed no further plans, had no idea, didn't know who would do what, how or to whom. That is, in metaphorical terms, "I let the characters make their own decisions".
I did this because I, the author wanted surprises. I did this to represent the uncertainties of just such a raid-cum-trap. I wanted not to know what came next.
Caz chases one of the McLintocks through a window. McLintock is huge, Caz isn't. But that's OK because McLintock is going to keep running, isn't he?
Caz leapt up on the fitted kitchen worktop and followed the butt through the open window. She didn't know which McLintock it was but he was big and he had a baseball bat in a thick fist.
"The door!" Peter Mason was shouting as she dropped into the garden; later she worked out he meant "I'm unlocking it." She hit the yard, a bit of wet grass, dog mess, just as McLintock Four reached the back gate, threw it open, changed his mind and turned. Mason was shouting. He couldn't get out of the door. "Oh, f-ck!" Caz said.
This was the end of a chapter. Now I'm Caz, and now I'm in trouble. But importantly, author Alex Keegan is nowhere to be seen, (he ran off ages ago). I'm on my own. And I don't know what I'm going to do.
What would you do? Note the question. Not, what do you think the officer should do (she's unarmed). What would you do, reader? You're a six-feet-three karate black-belt? Not any more you're not! You're Caz Flood, 5'7", 120 pounds. Well?
The nearest thing to Caz was a garden rake. She grabbed it just as Frank McLintock turned round to discover he was being chased by a woman four inches shorter and seventy pounds lighter than him. The grin that spread across his face was disgusting. If this had been a dark alley and one-on-one, Caz would be running already. McLintock was in vest and jeans, no shoes. He had the lot, scars, broken nose, shaved head, like a very bad photo-fit of a bank-blagger. Caz was terrified. She was thinking, "Jeez, this lump could pick me up, eat me and spit out the pieces before Mason is through the window." She decided to attack, throw in a bit of verbal to give him time to think. She was holding the rake diagonally across her chest. "Only a pissy little bird, Frankie," she said. "That what you're thinking? You fancy your chances, do yer?" She spun the rake so the prongs were forward. Did he fancy his chances? Who was she kidding? And where the f-ck was Mason?
The point is, Caz is "thinking on her feet", responding instantaneously to events. What I wanted to do was be the same. Instead of planning, instead of plotting, I simply let things happen, then, as Caz, "I" reacted.
If we work like this, our characters will live. They are bound to. Because we work from inside, because by working from the inside the characters become real to us, act with the consistency of human beings, don't conform, don't drop into line, don't behave like automatons.
The title of this article was Left-Right, Character. If we use our left-brains we impose in a formal, structured, almost always predictable way, without emotion. If we live through our characters, like a method actor acts, the characters will be, they will become, they will be us-as-woman, us-as-man, they will reflect our perceptions, all our complexities but instinctively and intuitively, spontaneously and naturally. They will be more real than we could dream of.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.