On Writing: How to Make Fictional Characters Feel at Home
Bryony Doran discusses The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon), Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín) and how she created depth of character in her award-winning novel, The China Bird.
Whilst listening to a very interesting BBC Radio 4 programme called ‘Only Artists’ I heard two artists from different disciplines discuss their work.
During the conversation Mark Haddon mentioned that his father was an architect and that he had a fascination for buildings and the inside of buildings, and that he hated books where you could not place the character. Surprisingly he mentioned Jane Austen, saying her characters seem to float in unknown buildings of no description.
My father was an architect; I can’t write a scene unless I can draw you a floor plan of the building in which it is happening. I love Jane Austen but there are no object. Everything floats free, it drives me insane. – Mark Haddon, ‘Only Artists’ (BBC Radio 4)
This hit a note with me: he is right. I think to truly get inside a character you need to be able to see where they are. As Mark Haddon said, ‘you need to see what they have on their mantle piece’.
I first consciously became aware of this technique when early in my writing career. Back in 1995 I went on a writing course with The Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. One of our tutors on the course was the writer, Colm Tóibín. He was already a published author – though not as well known as he has subsequently become – but this did not take away from the fact that he was a superb teacher. I remember in one of his workshops he asked us to imagine a childhood home and to walk through every room in our mind and to describe every detail: the curtains, the furniture, floor covering, the colour of the walls, the smells, the personal affects, everything about the house. It was a great exercise and one I have used many times since. I love doing it; it is a bit like when as a child and I used to peer inside my doll house.
Even though you may end up not using the information you gather about your character’s spaces it is still a valuable exercise to do. Why, you might ask.
The answer is simple: if you think about it, the very act of exploring the rooms your character inhabits allows you to get to know them on a more profound level and to write about them in a far richer, deeper way than before. The reader is not actively conscious that you know your character at such a deep level but, trust me, it will permeate through in your writing. Just think, in real life seeing inside a person’s house gives us great insight into their true personality. That is why to be invited into someone’s house is such a great privilege.
Since attending Colm Tóibín’s workshop I have read most of the work he has had published. I have to admit that knowing what he knows makes the reading of his books even more enjoyable than before because now I look for, and smile, when I find him placing his characters. Here is a lovely example from his novel, Nora Webster:
When I wrote my novel, The China Bird, I used Colm Tóibín’s method, both consciously and unconsciously drawing from known and unknown places – though not always as a whole. I would maybe take a bedroom from one childhood home and a sitting room from another and maybe mix these with some imaginary features.
Thinking back, I realise now that the house where my main protagonist (Edward Anderson) lodged with his landlady (Mrs Ingram) was actually my Grandmother’s 1930’s semi. I had not realised this before now! How odd.
Here is an example from when one of the other main characters in my novel, Angela, is taken to a cottage in Cornwall:
As a rider to all this, and after saying all of the above, I would like to add this: please don’t overthink your writing. To some extent I was already unconsciously using the character-placing technique before I attended the workshop and you probably are too. Don’t get drawn into procrastination or rabbit-holing! Just go for it and at the editing stage, if you are not happy with how a character is framing, use the placing technique. You might be surprised to find how much you already know about your character’s spaces.
Here is a little exercise: the photo of the room above is of me sitting in my late mother’s sitting room. What can you draw from the character of the woman that once inhabited this room?