Writing our shared humanity

Art of Survival Coverfront onlyfinalAfter six weeks focusing on the launch of my latest crime novel, The Art of Survival, http://goo.gl/MfMBUj I am back to the working on the third in the series, The Art of Breathing. One of the advantages of writing a series is that I already know the point-of-view characters pretty well, and reader and writer can get to know them in greater depth with each outing.

I had already written the stories of these characters several times before I embarked on this series. They had popped up in one or other of the five unpublished novels which I have written since I was in my late teens. However, the one I was most shy of pushing onto the public stage was Detective Sergeant Theo Akande. After all, what does a white, middle-class fifty year old woman know about the experience of a black, thirty-something man? I could add in the mix the difference in our stated sexuality, though I do believe that this is (perhaps?) more fluid than aspects of race, gender and age (perhaps not?).

A main character in a novel has to have a developed back-story. There were many, many narratives which would lead to Theo’s black skin, I needed to know which one authentically belonged to him. The one thing I was certain about Theo was his sense of security and stability. I was clear this had to come from his parents and background. Having family connections to South Wales, I knew about the rooted Cape Verde community in Cardiff. As I read more about it, I decided Theo’s mother would come from there.

Theo’s father would come from Nigeria, a notion born from the story of a friend I had at university and from the biography of writer, Jackie Kay. Still there was a sketchiness to this. I read the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and have recently begun Nigeria, a new history of a turbulent century, by Richard Bourne. As I paint in detail for Theo’s father’s story, Theo himself takes on greater substance and exciting new possibilities open up.

I am utterly committed to creating characters with depth and complexity. Theo is as real to mewriter at work june 15 001 as the others in my novels. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with him (as I do with the others) to test out what I know about him and to find out new information. Yet, I have less confidence presenting him to others and wait to be slammed down for attempting to do so.

I hope if/when this happens, I will be able to channel some of Theo’s assurance and hold onto my belief that what connects us as humans is greater than what divides us.

How do you, as a writer, build character? What, as a reader, do you consider good characterisation?


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