So far in this series, I have discussed ideas and techniques that are quite general in application. This time, though, I want to talk about a trick that I use, which may be unique to me (though it probably isn’t!)
If you read how-to-write (or how-not-to-write!) books, they will probably warn you against writing characters from life. They will be right. In my first novel, I used real people as characters and one reader dismissed the female characters as “cyphers”; the two things are not unconnected. Don’t ask me why but real people just fail to convince in the way that made-up ones can.
At the time, I had no idea about this and it was just the accident of running out of real people that led me out of this particular dead end. In my next couple of novels, I lifted characters from films and other novels and reworked them. It was the following novel, which took so long to finish that I finally counted it as my sixth, in which I first created all the characters from scratch. This may simply be because this novel, and the next two, were futuristic science fiction set in three different futures of my own devising, leaving me no option but to populate them with people of my own devising. During this period, though, I had developed a new trick; I had found “muses”.
“Muses” are what I call ladies whom I use as inspiration for my characters. The first was an unidentified fashion model who inspired the eponymous heroine of my novella, Sleeping with Ellen. Almost all of my muses have been models, possibly for no better reason than there is a large quantity of photographs available of some of them.
I know little of Fraulein Wis and nothing of Miss Paterson — the inadequacies in Sandi Sutton’s characters are entirely down to me — but then I am not writing about them. What I have are photographs. I have a goodly collection of photographs of the Fraulein and I used these to create a 3-D model in my mind that I used in much the same way as a sculptor uses a solid armature around which to form the clay. I took the basic outline and added the qualities and weaknesses that I wanted the character to have, just as the sculptor shapes the clay. To this end, models have a crucial advantage over actresses. Models present me with simple, static images. Actresses (for some reason, none of my muses have been men) are habitually encountered inhabiting other writers’ characters so they do not offer the blank sheet that models do.
Sophie Schonauer and Anne Wis are both German fashion models but there the similarity ends, so far as I know. Beyond that, Sophie is my creation, from whole cloth. At the front of every novel is the disclaimer that any similarity between characters and real people is coincidental; this statement still holds true in every particular except appearance.
Of course, some may argue that what I do is very much what stalkers do. Don’t stalkers develop elaborate fancies about real people? Well, they do. The crucial difference is that I realize that my characters are fancies. I create imaginary characters with real people’s faces but my characters have separate identities and my characters never set foot outside my stories. Sophie Schonauer is not Anne Wis and I have no difficulty in remembering that. I have never supposed that there is a connection between the flesh-and-blood lady and the figment of my imagination.
There is one muse who is special to me: Claudia Galhardo. The “relationship” with Claudia has been particularly productive for me. Her face has appeared on a Indian-British doctor in the futuristic Damocles; a British fashion model in Eye of the Beholder; a Brazilian heiress in 1930s Sussex in the whodunnit All Hallows and a Jewish-German mannequin in Berlin in 1939 in Rachel’s Journey and Saving Rachel.
The range of characters I have based on Senhorita Galhardo’s image illustrates the important point about this technique. I know nothing about this lady except for her country of birth and her profession, which I ignore, anyway. All I use is her physical image. Everything else about my characters derives from my imagination. They are not Claudia Galhardo.
All my characters are imaginary. That is a key point about writing. To reiterate, how-to books are likely to warn you against writing characters from real life; this is good advice. I have already mentioned that my first novel wrote people I knew into the story and one reader told me that my female characters were cyphers. Many years later I got my first review on Amazon and the reviewer said that she had cried over Rachel’s struggles. Clearly, sometime in the interim, I had learnt to write female characters and the first step must surely to have been to abandon real people. Rachel Löwenthal was cut from whole cloth from my imagination yet she comes off the page as more believable than real people. If you can write characters at all, this is always the case. Just don’t ask me why.
Until next time…