How Characters Come to Be

“Unlike most writers, Rankin does not plan his characters: he has said that Rebus arrived virtually fully formed on the page.”

Until I read these words in How to Write Like a Bestselling Author (a collection of magazine articles on bestseller characteristics by Tony Rossiter), I had no idea that most writers actually plan their characters. One of those disconcerting moments when you realize that what’s going on in your head is not the same as what’s going on in other people’s heads, even if you have the same name for it.

I don’t plan my characters. They just pop into my head, like bubbles rising from the frothy cauldron of my unconscious mind. And while I might change some minor things about them – such as their names, and whether or not they’re actually in the book – the characters themselves are fairly constant. (Minor spoilers follow…)

woman in bubble rising from waterfall
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People I'd Like to Smack Upside the Head

la gifle / the slap

Fictional people, of course. *cough*

First on the list (but not necessarily most smack-worthy), Catherine from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” Right. So you married the pusillanimous twit next door instead. Why, exactly? Not that Edgar’s any worse, but hey, I’m not the one who says she’s in love with Heathcliff.

Top Withens Moorland Panorama

Next up is Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. Apparently Catcher in the Rye is one of those love-it-or-hate-it books? Well, I don’t love it. I believe I’ve mentioned this before.
Holden may have a genuine point about everyone being phoney, but when he’s compulsively lying to everyone he meets, his repeated claims that phoniness makes him sick ring a little hollow.

Vivien Leigh Gone Wind Restaured

Then there’s Scarlett O’Hara (from Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Again with the being in love with one man and marrying another! Or in this case, a number of others.
A friend of mine, once called upon to summarise Gone With The Wind, described it as “there’s this woman who marries three different guys”. The American Civil War didn’t even rate a mention…

I watched the film version with another friend, and we took a walk in the intermission – just after “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”.
All sounds very stirring and heroic, but out in the fresh air you realise she’s basically saying “I’m going to look out for number one, regardless of what it costs anyone else.” And to think Margaret Mitchell originally planned to call her Pansy…

Bust of a young Newman

Just for a change, a man who loves one woman but tries to marry another. St John Rivers is the cousin of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The man’s stone cold, and not in a tinsel-faced vampire kind of a way. The one love he has he ruthlessly extinguishes, and then, having told his new-found cousin that he will be her brother, he tries spiritual blackmail to get her to marry him. Not because he loves her but because he thinks she’d be useful: “You were formed for labour, not for love.”

A verse from the Good Book for you, Mr. Missionary: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Perfectly played by Andrew Bicknell in the 1983 miniseries, in my opinion.

Looking back, I see I am railing against the separation of love and marriage. Well, horse and carriage, people…

Bride arriving on carriage - A quick shot from today's wedding. - Litchfield Plantation

What do you think? Is Scarlett your heart’s darling? Or do you think Holden is merely misunderstood? Who are the characters that bug you – that you’d like to slap upside the head (or even rewrite out altogether)? All opinions welcomed!