Mine is a post-script to Candy’s, because I couldn’t have said it better. Live and love your characters. Then put them through Hell. Sacrifice them without mercy, for the sake of the story.
(And enjoy the guilt. Maybe Candy does, like me.)
Those of us who write that we are loyal to our characters mostly seem to be saying that we would not make them do anything out of character. Fair enough. Although, as Linda says, real people act out of character, so why shouldn’t story people be the same? Well, a real person has three hundred and sixty-five days of however many years of their life to act in different ways. It’s hardly surprising if they try something different from time to time. Story characters have a few hours at most of the reader’s attention. It’s good if they are complex. It’s good if they can surprise the reader now and again. But the reader must be allowed to see that what surprised them at the time really fits with everything that has gone before. Otherwise the thread of the story is broken.
The reader is Caesar. I, like Richard, read and enjoyed The Silmarillion. I watched, so to speak, from purple cushions while Turin Turambar, deceived, heroic, betrayed, trod his doomed course along the river-banks of Beleriand. And the hands that placed us both in our positions were those of the wily old JRRT. He was the gamesmaster, then. Now, as writers, it is our turn to entertain. You can’t be loyal to your gladiators.
You can be disloyal to your readers. It happens. But at your peril. At your peril.
John Dickinson worked for 17 years in Whitehall and Brussels before becoming an author. He has published six novels: The Cup of the World, The Widow and the King, The Fatal Child, The Lightstep, WEand Muddle and Win. John has recently written short stories for The Phoenix Comic and his next novel, Attack of the Cupids, will be published in August.
There was a fourth bear. But he got cut from the story. (Arthur Rackham illustration now in the public domain)
Oh Character, my dear one,
I am sorry.
I have no loyalty to give you,
Even though I created you with all my love,
Even though it is my own blood that throbs in your veins,
my tears that stain your cheek.
I can promise you nothing.
No steadfast role.
No grand adventure.
No happy ending.
Though I build you up to great heights, I will strike you down without a sigh.
I will grant you great power, only to snatch it away on a whim.
Because when I’m told to kill my darlings, without hesitation
I will unsheathe my blade.
Oh please understand, I love you. I really do.
But it is Story that commands me.
And you, dear one, only exist for the telling of it.
Hello! I’m the author of TALL STORY. My next book for DFB is called SHINE and will be out in September. Do leave me a comment below or drop by and say hello on my website! www.candygourlay.com. Author photo by Raymund Rivera
I hope I am loyal to Charlie Small. He needs all the help he can get! I don’t make things easy for him, though, and he certainly doesn’t make things easy for me! He is an eight-year-old boy who, whilst out playing on his homemade raft, was taken on a surge of floodwater into a new and very dangerous world, away from his home, his mum and dad and everything he knows. He has spent the last four hundred years desperately trying to get back home.
The longer I spend in his company, the better I get to know and understand him, the less likely I am to betray the loyalty I feel towards Charlie. He’s just an average boy with no special super-human powers, and I always respect that about him. He’s brave, though; brave, resourceful and determined and very loyal himself – to the other characters in his journals, and towards me. So, I wouldn’t try and make him behave in a way that goes against his character. I wouldn’t impose actions or attitudes on him, and I doubt if he would let me. He wouldn’t do something just because I have happened to write it down.
“You must be joking,” he would say. “Leap over a vast pit of molten lava, guarded by a monstrous Spidion? There’s no way I’m gonna do that. Think again. What have I got in my rucksack that could help?”
“The lasso you were given by the Daredevil Desperados of Destiny?” I might suggest.
“OK, so what do I do with it? Hurry! The Spidion is clacking across the cave towards me, and there’s a terrifying troglodyte tracking me through the tunnels.”
Well, I got Charlie into these scrapes, and it’s my duty to see he’s OK and remains true to himself whilst he tries to find his way home. What would it take to betray that loyalty? If a film company wanted to make a film of Charlie’s adventures, but insisted I had got it all wrong and he was really a fourteen year old who could morph into different creatures at will, and was on a quest to find a lost crystal crown that would make him ruler of his new world – would I agree? Ummm . . . I do hope not!
The same applies to Alfie, his young cousin, who has little adventures all of his own. He’s a fearless adventurer who takes on pirates and scarecrows and space jelloids. But, being only six, he sometimes needs someone to look after him, and I see that as my job. I mean, how could I be disloyal to Alfie? Just look at his little face!
Nick Ward is a fantastic story-teller and illustrator who has helped share Charlie Small’s journals with hordes of young readers . You can find out more about Charlie Small’s amazing adventures on his website, and find out more about the new Alfie Small journals here!
Loyalty to my characters is extremely important. I spend inordinately large amounts of time thinking through the psychology of how to integrate the different parts of my hero’s personality and character flaws in a story arc that is ultimately loyal to the hero. In The House Rabbit, I decided to use a ‘Moth’ character to gently prompt Hero Rabbit to turn towards his fears. Moth represents Rabbit’s own intuition. Rabbit really needed to be active in sorting out his problems, rather than being passively told how to resolve things! In the final illustrations, Moth lands on Rabbit’s collar, providing a concrete representation of the idea that he is a part of Rabbit, rather than an outside ‘force’ that tells him what to do. For me, making my heroes active in controlling their fate is a concrete way of being loyal to characters.
At the moment I am working on another picture book called Little Duck Alone. In this text I use certain creatures as ‘guides’ that can also be seen as representations of unacknowledged/unintegrated parts of Little Duck’s personality. Again, Little Duck will be as active as possible in controlling the resolution. As I am working on this at the moment I cannot say any more, apart from the fact that loyalty will be key!
Lesley White is a writer and illustrator living in Brighton. Her first book,The House Rabbit, was recently published in hardback. If you’d like to see more of the story and artwork, you can read the opening pages…
To find out more about Lesley’s work, click here, and for her blog, click here!
This month’s theme is quite writer-specific, so I’ve wandered off topic to a certain degree.
At the risk of opening a scientifically fictional can of worms, I was thinking about my younger self, and whether he would approve of my pictures. Memories of what I particularly liked pre-ten years old are a bit hazy, but I definitely loved cartoons. I remember copying the illustrations accompanying a collection of Pam Ayres poems – it’s the only book I still have from this period, which has helped keep the memory fresh. Unfortunately the artist is uncredited, so I can’t pass on my thanks for that early dose of inspiration. I feel I have slightly let this earlier incarnation of me down, as I have never drawn cartoons professionally, but hopefully he would like some of the monsters I have painted (I also loved books with scary things in).
From ten onwards, I was particularly fond of comics, and I feel this manifestation of my former self would have been pleased to know I received my first professional commission from great British institution 2000AD in the form of a Tharg’s Future Shock, scripted by a then unknown writer called Neil Gaiman. However, I was very keen on the more outlandish styles of art (Kevin O’Neil for example) and I wonder if I would have liked my slightly more conservative style ( oh dear – I’m already getting into a grammatical muddle describing the different versions of me). The artists that I loved seemed to fill their pages with boundless imagination and obsessive peripheral details, rather like deranged manuscript illuminators. I swore I would travel down a similar path, but often the realities of publishing have diluted this pre-pubescent manifesto.
Anyway, I imagine my previous self would be heartened to know I still love comics, and soon I will be returning to the medium courtesy of the marvellous Phoenix. It’s been 25 years since my last job so I’d better get some practice in. As a ten year old, I was a surprisingly harsh critic (although I had excellent taste, I had no idea how difficult producing good art can be) and I don’t want to be on the receiving end of my own youthful scorn.
Here is a scan of my first ever job from 1986. Who knew speech bubbles fade with age?
The only example I can think of with me being loyal to a character is not in my own story but in someone elses, and I’m not sure it counts for just a character, but more a particular story.
The story is The Silmarillion and the character is Turin Turambar. (In fact, I think I have already written about him on this blog.) I first read The Silmarillion when I was about 16: I had read The Hobbit when I was younger, and had also recently read The Lord of the Rings. I liked The Hobbit, I didn’t mind The Lord of the Rings, but I lovedThe Silmarillion.
From then on I have always illustrated it. The sketches below are how the characters have progressed over the years as I have developed and experimented as an illustrator. Most of these are from the last 12 years, when I was at college and university, and still discovering the way I wanted to work.
The sketches on top are the oldest, done when I was 16-18. The characters are Fingolfin and Eärendil, as I’ve lost my sketches of Turin from this time. I was concentrating on line. The painting was done when I was about 18 and had started to think about atmosphere. The middle images (of Turin) were done during an Abstract phase and show Turin (the black spiky thing) vs the dragon Glaurung (the big blob). Since these, I have always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to try illustrating the book again, but I’ve never had the chance. Though I did manage to do a quick sketch recently (for this blog) about evoking emotions in characters (that sketch is at the bottom of the image).
So, in answer to the topic – I generally get bored of things really easily, so don’t go back to characters I have already created (either drawn or written). But, I have come back to The Silmarillion - and especially the character Turin Turambar – several times over the years since I first read it and will probably go back to it again once I have a good amount of spare time.
Richard Collingridge is an illustrator and concept artist. He has previously worked with DFB on the covers for Trash by Andy Mulligan, The Deserter by Peadar O’ Guilin, and WE by John Dickinson, amongst others.
Richard’s first picture book, When It Snows, was published last October – watch the trailer he made for it here!
Oh dear – the questions Tilda’s asking us are getting harder and harder. Loyalty to characters? Whatever does she mean? Well, it’s not an exam and I don’t have to answer if I don’t want to.
But while thinking that, I decided what to say.
I could say that loyalty to a character means being true to them – by not making them do something that’s out of character. But real people do behave oddly and unpredictably, so why shouldn’t fictional characters? A person in a book who always behaves in the same way may not be what you could call ’rounded’. Perhaps do be truly believable, a character has to do something unexpected – something that surprises them, as well as the reader (and the author). So perhaps you can be loyal to a character by giving them that freedom. More than once I’ve written about a character stomping out of a room but have had no idea where he’d go or what he’d do next. I didn’t find out till I left my desk and got on with some ironing.
I’m definitely not loyal to characters by wanting to go back and write about them again. No sequels, trilogies or quartets for me – I’ve written series in the past, but don’t expect to do so ever again. Once I’ve finished a book, that’s it – even though I may wonder what happens to my characters afterwards, as I did with Greg and Jordan in The Shell House, and Hilly, Reuben and Rashid in Sisterland.
With Set in Stone, I did want to suggest what happened to Samuel Godwin, my artist, after the story ended. I did this by writing a Times obituary for him, which appears at the end of the book. I’ve never written an obituary before and don’t suppose I will again, but enjoyed writing Samuel’s, sketching in the rest of his life and mentioning some of the other characters as well. The result was that several readers thought he was a real person. Some have emailed me to report that they’ve tried and failed to locate him on Google, and have drawn a blank when searching for his paintings. Perhaps believing in a fictional character is a kind of loyalty – and perhaps it’s mainly readers who can supply it.
Now – a few days after writing the rest – it’s struck me that there’s another kind of loyalty. The sort that means not letting go of your character till their story has been told in the right way – not thinking that what’s already written might be good enough, when secretly you know it isn’t. That kind of loyalty, and the belief that the story is worth hanging on to even though I sometimes doubt it, is the kind I shall need when I finish this and go back to revising my book-in-progress.
Linda Newbery has written over 25 books for children and young adults, including Set in Stone, which won the COSTA Children’s Book Prize and Lob – a beautiful story about journeys, garden magic and growing. You can read what Linda has to say about Lob on her author page and in this Guardian feature, or look around Linda’s website here.
I am passionate about my characters, and I feel a very strong sense of loyalty to them. When I am writing a story they have my full attention – which is why I can sometimes be seen pushing an empty trolley up and down the supermarket aisles with a vacant look on my face. I’m not trying to decide whether to have curry or a pizza; I’m lost in a dark place wondering how much terror or grief my hero or heroine can take.
And ‘wondering’ really is the right word. You may find this hard to believe, but once the story has started, it tends to take over. As author I see myself as a very small person in charge of a very large dog. ‘I don’t think we want to go in that direction,’ I might suggest politely, but the story-dog has other ideas. That is just the direction the story-dog wants to go in. The crumbling cliff path? The slimy steps down to the cavernous cellar? The tower with every other step broken, or the dark attic with the creaking floorboards and the strange smell? Yes, yes, yes and yes!
And of course it’s not me the story-dog leads into these awful places, but my poor characters. But you let him! you might say; and you’d be right. But I have to. It’s just as unnerving for me, to see them being dragged off towards danger. But without the story-dog, there’d be no story, and then where would we be?
I shudder at some of the things the story-dog sniffs out. My next book, The Stone Butterfly, has developed into a horror story – and I don’t even like horror stories! But although I allow my characters to be exposed to terrible experiences, I am always there for them in their darkest hour. Funnily enough, the story-dog is better at getting us all into tight corners, than getting us out. So the next time you see me adrift with an empty trolley in a supermarket aisle, I’m probably wondering about how far a crocodile can leap out of the swamp water and whether you can make a rope from a few strands of grass and an old tee-shirt.
Simon Rae has been writing for as long as he can remember. Keras is his first novel for David Fickling Books.
Firstly, I’m writing a reply to these questions on 1st April. So perhaps you may feel inclined to doubt my sincerity. On the other hand, since I’m writing after 12 midday, by traditional April Fool Rules I would be the fool were I to speak of Swiss Spaghetti Harvests and such. And would I ever… ? :)
As so often I come in from left field on the blog topic. I seem ever to be the outsider, the not-belonging, the spy unable to come in from the cold. Poor me. But I grow melodramatic.
Alas, as a poet and picture book writer I have scarcely any characters. I ransacked my attic thoroughly and found barely a few pale reflections of characters so can hardly address the issue of whether I might be ‘loyal’ to them. How can one be loyal to a frog who does little but leap and entice others into irresponsible choreography on the precarious brink of a pond (Down By The Cool Of The Pool, the verse picture book, of which Frog is the central protagonist, an anonymous trickster known only by his species name).
Very occasionally I’ve strayed into narrative areas, daringly, even, in prose! Often these are pre-existing narratives, fairy or folk tales whose characters’ movements and motives should not be played with too freely if one is not to offend the ancestry of storytellers who have passed down the sacred narrative thread to me. One should not tie too many (if any) knots in that thread lest the storytelling ancestry transform to a horde of Furies who prey on one’s already fleeing sanity.
Of course, sometimes I’ve created characters, say, like Mrs Bhattacharya, who help to drive a humorous narrative verse to its destination. But they tend to be vestigial, rudimentary, ghosts or whispers of characters with very little presentation of personality to grasp at. They may have long and complex histories that a novelist might conjure or conjecture, but of such things I am rarely tempted to speculate. It is almost like asking of a football player, in the middle of an intricate pattern of moves mid-game, “May we ask, was his a happy childhood? What are his religious beliefs? What does he see when he turns out the light…? etc”
So you may wonder what qualifies me, apart from Matilda’s permission, to be here on a blogspot ostensibly writing about loyalty to characters when I have so little experience of creating them. Listen? Do you hear it? Read the rest of this entry »
Tilda has set us just two questions for our homework this month (well, it is the Easter holidays…)
As a writer, are you loyal to your characters?
Am I loyal? I’m their slave, their Mummy, and their headmistress too.
There’s a psychological condition called the Stockholm Syndrome. It has another name: Traumatic Bonding. I expect you can see where this is going.
STOCKHOLM: FAMOUS FOR MORE THAN CHEAP CHILDCARE AND MOODY DETECTIVES
Stockholm Syndrome is named after an incident in Sweden in 1973, when robbers held several bank staff captive for five days. The hostages came to like their captors, and even tried to get their punishment lessened when the siege was over. Similar reactions have been reported after hijacks and kidnappings. The most famous case is probably that of Patty Hearst, the American heiress who was snatched by a terrorist group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was next seen on CCTV, wielding a machine gun alongside her captors, and she ended up spending two years in jail for her part in their crime.
Well, I’m not taking up guns, but I am a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome. My characters have me in their power. I almost find myself laying the table for Montmorency (the hero of four of my books) and I still worry about how Johnny Swanson is getting on, years after I left him in a state of arrested adolescent development, having faced more drama than most boys could stand. Read the rest of this entry »