Friday, April 30, 2010

Rationalising characters

This week I yanked a novel off the shelf, where it's been festering for the best part of a year. I'd got horribly stuck on one particular scene which stuck out like a sore thumb, but which I simply couldn't think up a suitable replacement for, and it was only this week that I suddenly thought of a solution.

When I came to read through the relevant chapter, though, I found that scene was only part of the problem - a symptom rather than a cause. You get so familiar with works in progress that sometimes you forget the details and in this case I'd forgotten that I'd made the love interest American, probably because I was writing for an American market back in the day when I started the novel.

There's nothing wrong with an American love interest, of course. It's just that being British, I'm not entirely familiar with American dialogue, American history, American culture. Most of what I know comes from tv series and films and might not always be strictly authentic, and I'd never even been to the city I had the character coming from. This all made it much harder to familiarise myself with the character. What would his accent sound like? Where would he work? Which part of the city would he be likely to live in? What's the attitude to gay men in that city? If I don't know this sort of basic stuff, I'm never going to convince my readers that the character is a real person.

I started to ask myself why the character needed to be American. Did it add anything to the plot, or to the character himself? The quick answer was no, not really. There were a few culture-clash style comedy moments but very little else, and it's easy enough to rewrite those.

So, this week my American has become a Liverpudlian. I know that city pretty well; I'm familiar with the accent which means I can hear the character's voice in my mind and know the sort of things he would or wouldn't say. And I can 'place' him geographically, and come up with a few amusing anecdotes about Liverpool, to add a bit of local colour. It'll mean a heap of rewriting, of course, but I already feel happier that the novel will be better as a result.

I don't think I've ever re-nationalised a character before, but there's a first time for everything...


mand said...

I'm interested whether you renamed him at the same time as renationalising him. I know for some writers the name comes before everything else and could never be changed, whereas for others it's the last attribute (like a title, i suppose).

I'm one of the latter. Each character may 'try out' several names before one gels... in fact i'm still trying to decide my son's 'real' name – and he's ten!

fiona glass said...

I do sometimes have to rename characters if I change them substantially but in this case the character was already there and it was simply his nationality that was 'wrong', I think.