Taking your character out for tea

Last week I took my character, Isabelle, out for tea. She made a real effort, turning up in her authentic early 1900s clothing, buttoned boots, hat and gloves. She even squeezed herself into a corset for old-times sake. She caused quite a stir.

I was quite nervous, because even though I have been writing her for four years, this was the first opportunity for the two of us to chat.

It’s strange to think that someone who has been part of my life for so long can be so unknown. It’s even stranger when you consider that I am her creator. She does not blink without my writing it on the page. She has no thoughts except those which I give her, cannot speak unless I put the words in her mouth. I am her mother, her conscience and her puppet-master – yet she has remained at arm’s length this entire time. A shadow. Arcane.

Much of my problem as a writer has been basing Isabelle on a real person. You can read more about it here. I wanted to keep the integrity of the real story, which would have been fine, except I didn’t know the real story. I had the beginning and the end but I was trying to write the middle. It’s been like attempting to build a life-size Eiffel Tower out of a spool of wire using only a picture postcard as a guide.

No other character has ever caused me such grief. Yet no other has been so important to me.

Isabelle was the first character to ask me to write her story. There have been others since, many others, who were kind enough to hand me their stories—their thoughts and motivations, their goals and growth—neatly packaged, ready for consumption. Some of these characters were completely foreign to m; they were neither based on people I knew nor stories I had heard, yet they came to me intact. Established. Known.

Taking Isabelle to tea was an idea suggested by my writing group, writers more experienced and knowledgeable than me. We meet monthly to share our words and offer our thoughts. Over time we are getting to know each other’s characters – you can see it in the thoughtful comments: would Isabelle really think this? Isabelle would not have said it like this. I wonder if they can see Isabelle more clearly than me because they can understand how they would write her, unburdened by one-sided obligations to a long-dead woman.

So last week I closed Scrivener and opened Word.

I started by asking her which table she wanted to sit at, and that answer alone told me so much about her. I asked her question after question – things I, as the writer, should already know – and waited to hear what she had to say. Our exchange spilled out of me and onto the page, and 6,500 words later, we are still deep in conversation (the staff have cleared away our dishes and are waiting for us to leave).

Unlinking the real person from my character has been a momentous development for me. It has been harder than I imagined. But removing the character from her book has been even more significant.  

The last time we spoke she was ready to leave the café – she said she wanted to show me something. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I suspect it will have major implications for her story.

I suppose this is what they mean when they say something has taken on a life of its own.

2 thoughts on “Taking your character out for tea

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