‘Where do ideas come from?’ It’s the one question you’re bound to get during a school or library visit. I’m always truthful and say I don’t know. Oh, the disappointment in the eyes of that future author in the third row who sits, pencil poised, hoping to be gifted with the secret of story. I offer comfort in the form of tips on how to generate ideas and catch them before they fly away, like Roald Dahl’s BFG scooping up dreams in his net and bottling them, and the child is satisfied.
And, for me, there is a sense of disaster averted. I truly hope that no clever, obsessively inquisitive neuroscientist ever cracks the mechanics of creativity. I don’t want to know where my ideas come from, I just want to spy them fluttering past my eyes at unexpected moments, like translucent, technicoloured butterflies. Actually, I have a superstitious fear that if the magic process is examined too closely, it will wither away under the white hot glare of intellect. Some things grow best in the dark.
The origin of characters is even more mysterious to me. There’s a wonderful, darkly funny story by Diana Wynne Jones called Carol Onier’s Hundredth Dream. It should be required reading for all writers, especially those whose characters have a habit of hi-jacking the story.
I remember typing the last words of the final scene of my second book, City of Thieves, and feeling an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I had spent a white-hot six weeks glued to my computer, writing sixteen hours a day to get the story out. Not because of editorial deadlines but because Tobias, the main character, refused to get out of my head until I told his story. And it is a good story. Compelling and heart breaking. And although I know I created that story and remember long sessions working out the plots and reveals, it still feels as though Tobias told it to me.
When I’d done the deed, and written the last word, I lifted my aching fingers from the keyboard, looked round my extremely untidy study and suffered real grief that these characters I had lived with so intensively for a month and a half did not actually exist somewhere … in some alternative world. I believe I actually cried.
I always tell that story with a slight worry the men in white coats will be sent to talk with me by kind well-wishers, but I’ve come to believe that, for me, it perfectly illustrates why I write. It’s all about the characters.
Oh, you do need plot. And pacing. And themes … and all the other lovely mixture of ingredients that are so much fun and make up the craft of writing well. But characters are the heart, the soul, and the ‘why’ – at least for me. But where do they come from?
Some writers (I know, because there are whole chapters in ‘how-to’ books and entire units in creative writing courses dedicated to the subject) draw their characters directly from life - observing people they know and those they don’t; taking notes, adding, subtracting, rubbing out and re-drawing, until they have the characters they need to populate their plot.
I don’t do it that way. I start with a concept, an idea, a theme. After that, the characters form a casting queue outside my mental door. Of course, they must also be drawn from life – from a lifetime of observing people, of reading books obsessively, of watching television and film. But I don’t have to build them mechanically. They seem to create themselves as I put the first chapters down, and tell me their stories as I write. It truly does seem a form of magic.
I’m in that delicious, tantalising stage of a new book. A book I’ve been waiting nearly six months to start. As the time approached when I knew I’d be clear of other writing commitments and able to begin this new project – a shiny new strong idea that I don’t want to mess up – I was torn between anticipation and fear. I was wracked with the classic anxiety: had I forgotten how to write my own stories? Would I be good enough to tackle this big idea? Would the words come; the plot? And – especially – the characters?
A few weeks in and anxiety is easing. I’ve become caught up in my own storytelling web. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve fallen in love with my characters. They have arrived, wholly-formed and real, from some hidden part of my mind, and are living their lives on the pages as I write. I’m enjoying their company tremendously. They’re teaching me about their world, about pain and strength and courage. This time, I do have a deadline to meet; I know how long I have to be in their company, and am already dreading the day that I will type that last scene and raise my head to look around a strangely lonely study.