After 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 They had popped up in one or other of the five unpublished novels which I have written since I was in my late teens.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 me 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?