Telling Imaginative Histories
I prefer to read and write character driven fiction. Don’t get me wrong both plot and setting are important to me, but they don’t excite me, either as an author or reader in the same way that characters do. Characters bring stories to life.
The novelist, Dame Hilary Mantel, gave the five lectures in this year’s run of the annual Reith lectures on BBC radio 4. Mantel, the author of best-selling, historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (to name only two of her many books) spoke inspiringly on how she views writing in general and writing historical fiction in particular.
She talked about what history is, about how it can only ever be an interpretation rather than irrefutable truth. She didn’t deny there are historical facts. Certain things happened on certain dates, certain decisions were made, certain outcomes happened. And from these facts we construct a possible impression of the past.
Mantel said that she did detailed research before writing her Tudor novels and that she saw her fiction writing as bringing the past and the dead back to life, as taking the events and creating a picture of how things possibly were for the people living through them.
Although I write mainly contemporary fiction, much of what Mantel said about the writing process resonated with me.
I had to research a wide range of topics––from Scottish crofting law and the care of sheep, to the politics of the Middle East–– while writing my novel, Displacement and this continues currently as I write its sequel Settlement. The geographical settings of the Isle of Skye and Israel-Palestine are real, certain historical, political and cultural events that give background to the plot did actually happen.
But for me the magic, the alchemy of writing the novels, comes from creating credible, interesting and engaging characters. My characters are imaginary, but they must be brought to life in the same way as any ‘real’ historical characters must. I must inhabit and get into the head of my characters––and by doing so present a credible picture for my readers of the events and the realities my characters are living through.
Similarly, when I wrote my children’s novel The Silver Locket which involves three contemporary children travelling back to the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites in eighteenth century Scotland, I had to research key historical events such as the Battle of Culloden, but also what life is like for today’s eleven-year-olds. But again the real magic and thrill for me came when I breathed life into my protagonists.
My characters shape the story, their actions and reactions, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses are the story.
My fictional characters, in the same way as long-dead historical ones, come to life on the page. As an author this can seriously mess with your head. Sometimes characters surprise me. They can go off in directions I hadn’t predicted. I talk to my characters, even interview them, when I’m not sure how they feel about something or how they might react in a given situation. I live inside my character’s heads as I write–– much as I imagine an actor does when playing a role. I sometimes expect to see my characters in a real life setting such as when I’m on a real life beach, or up a real life hill that happens to feature in one of my stories.
Characters, historical or invented, have a story to tell. They are living and real for the duration of the book––and perhaps beyond.
All authors need to be imaginative historians and to let the characters bring the story to life and bring life to the story.
What do you think? Is it the characters that make a story for you?