Every seven years, so it is believed, we undergo a full molecular transformation. Short of shedding skin, we find different things funny and get up in arms over different issues, we drop our old habits (even those that once amounted to an insurmountable thirty-a-day), we swop our likes and dislikes, we lose our strengths and acquire new weakness, and we emerge on the other side as someone else. As writers, we do it with even greater frequency.
If we add to it changing personal circumstances, births and deaths, marriages and breakups, house moves, job redundancies, intrepid journeys and other cataclysmic events, God knows what multitude of personalities we carry inside us! As writers, we kill and resurrect those personalities round the clock, we store them at the back of our notebooks, we chop them, mix and match them, pick and choose, buy two for the price of one, adopt them and disinherit them at a whim…
Many of them make it into our stories. They are much more realistic if we had an opportunity to live inside their heads at some point in our constantly morphing lives. They turn up on the page with ease and we are able to switch between them, dash from one to another in dialogues in which we take sides, try to talk reason and simply cannot deal with the other character’s pig-headedness. In Life Without Me I had to feed on my assertive, professional, no-nonsense self when I stepped in Georgie’s shoes and had to starve myself of any common sense whenever Paula tottered in wearing her high heels and little else. While writing the opening chapters of Swimming with Sharks I lived in my pyjamas, hiding under the bed whenever there was a knock on the door, but when Gillian marched onto the scene, I lost the pjs, got in the car and let the road rage take me to my destination (because, let’s face it, the world is full of fools I don’t suffer gladly and someone has to let them know that).
There are times when characters get under our skin. They won’t listen and they are not particularly likeable, and you really want nothing better than to kill them off. But, like I said, they don’t listen. They won’t go away. They won’t let you write them out of the story no matter how many traps you set for them. They can be exhausting, but you have to deal with them. I like to take breaks from them, offering them the traditional excuse of ‘Look, it’s not you – it’s me.’ Today I’ve been writing about Reggie, a South African mercenary with a heart wrought into a nugget of steel. I just had to throw in his way young Bella – a delicate flower of a woman who brought back tender memories – to soften the bastard up a bit. And so it goes. Sometimes I have to switch between stories, leave one to sulk in the background and reach out to another one, make new friends and remember myself to old enemies.
I know some of my characters, some of my multiple personalities, are pain-in-the-arse, incorrigible wastrels, but God forbid, someone should say that to my face. It feels like a slap, and I have to fight the urge to slap that someone back. Because my characters are my babies. Not all of them are good, or decent, or agreeable, but they are mine.