Cre­at­ing a pro­tag­o­nist is like get­ting to know a per­son – it re­quires time and pa­tience, and in the end teaches you about your­self

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - EMMA HEALEY

How Emma Healey cre­ates her pro­tag­o­nists

The char­ac­ters in a novel are made up, fig­ments of the writer’s imag­i­na­tion. I’m sure this won’t come as a sur­prise to any­one, and it’s not sur­pris­ing to me ei­ther, but know­ing this, feel­ing this, def­i­nitely made writ­ing my sec­ond book harder.

It was the act of rep­e­ti­tion that caused the prob­lem. When I was writ­ing my first novel,

El­iz­a­beth Is Miss­ing, I was writ­ing the only novel I had ever writ­ten and writ­ing about the only pro­tag­o­nist I’d ever writ­ten about. Be­cause of this I didn’t think of her as a con­struct. Maud was real. She was a lit­tle bit of both my grand­moth­ers, she was a lit­tle bit of other older women I knew, she was a lit­tle bit the re­sult of re­search into de­men­tia and the 1940s, but she was also her­self.

Hav­ing to write a sec­ond book I was con­fronted by the idea of cre­at­ing a new char­ac­ter. In­vent­ing some­one. I couldn’t write about Maud again, or from Maud’s point of view, but any other char­ac­ter felt false, ar­bi­trary. It was like break­ing up with some­one and find­ing ev­ery new per­son I dated shal­low and af­fected, or bland. If the Amer­i­can-sit­com-style answer to get­ting over a re­la­tion­ship is set­ting fire to me­men­tos, then my answer was to write a story where I killed off Maud. But that wasn’t enough. I still I couldn’t find a “real” per­son to take her place.

I wrote sev­eral thou­sand words about a wo­man who worked in a petrol sta­tion. I wrote tens of thou­sands about a man who was re­ceiv­ing strange pack­ages. I wrote even more about a girl whose artist mother had been killed. All of them were like ex­er­cises in a cre­ative writ­ing class, they hung to­gether, full of the right num­ber of quirks and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. I knew what they car­ried around in their pock­ets, but I didn’t carry them around in my head as I had Maud. I couldn’t imag­ine them re­act­ing to mo­ments in my life, I didn’t hear lit­tle bits of their di­a­logue when I was wash­ing up or walk­ing to the shops. While pieces of them might be sal­vaged for short sto­ries or sec­ondary char­ac­ters, they weren’t go­ing to sus­tain a whole novel.

I used to say I wasn’t in­ter­ested in writ­ing about char­ac­ters. Per­haps be­cause a “real char­ac­ter” in life of­ten turns out to be a per­son you don’t want to spend more than a few min­utes with (let alone write a book about). I even had a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend where we both de­cided that, for us, the true value in writ­ing was the con­cept, the struc­ture, the abil­ity to ex­per­i­ment with form.

How­ever, when I scanned my shelves or looked through my list of read books on Goodreads, I saw that the nov­els which had made the most im­pact on me were the ones that had pro­tag­o­nists I’d emo­tion­ally con­nected with: Lizzie in Nina Stibbe’s Par­adise Lodge, Ifemelu in Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s Amer­i­canah, Jake in Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

And it was Maud read­ers spoke about when they con­tacted me, if I didn’t want to let them down I had to keep that in mind.

Half an hour af­ter I scrapped the book about the mur­dered artist I had a meet­ing with my agent. It was an ex­cru­ci­at­ing meet­ing: me clutch­ing typed-up pages, re­fus­ing to share them be­cause I knew the book was al­ready dead, she try­ing to re­as­sure me that I would find inspiratio­n if I kept writ­ing. The at­mos­phere was es­pe­cially tense be­cause I was a month away from a dead­line with a pub­lisher.

In des­per­a­tion, I be­gan to write 500 words a day. I had tried this be­fore, us­ing vis­ual aids to gen­er­ate ma­te­rial, get­ting up in the morn­ing while it was still dark, and sit­ting at my desk with red eyes, but it had seemed to en­cour­age re­hearsal-style writ­ing – what I pro­duced al­ways read like a prac­tice run. This time, though, I wrote in the evenings, us­ing the rest of the day to gather de­tails, sce­nar­ios, sen­tences in my head, and I found that by the time I sat down in front of my com­puter I had some­thing more sub­stan­tial to say.

I also let my­self write lots of di­a­logue. I love writ­ing di­a­logue – it’s when I re­ally lose my­self in my work. I love read­ing it too when it’s good and rings true. And it’s the best way to get to know a char­ac­ter. Af­ter all we get to know other peo­ple, not by know­ing what they have in their pock­ets, but by talk­ing to them. My first drafts were nearly ex­clu­sively con­ver­sa­tions be­tween my central char­ac­ters.

Meanwhile I’d been read­ing and ob­sess­ing over cer­tain types of books: nov­els fea­tur­ing a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist and filled with poignant hu­mour. I loved Laura in Mol­lie Pan­ter-Downes’s One Fine Day, and Florence in Pene­lope Fitzger­ald’s The Book­shop and Dul­cie in Bar­bara Pym’s No Fond Re­turn of Love. Most im­por­tant was The

Diary of a Pro­vin­cial Lady by EM De­lafield, which I adore for its wit and clever ob­ser­va­tion, and for the edge of hys­te­ria in the voice.

Jen ap­peared within a few days: a mid­dle-aged wo­man, with a dif­fi­cult daugh­ter, a wo­man who was strug­gling with her own sense of iden­tity as well as the re­la­tion­ship with her child. Not only that, but Jen’s hus­band, Hugh, and their re­la­tion­ship, their way of talk­ing to each other, emerged. I was in the room with them as they bick­ered and teased each other and wor­ried over their chil­dren.

Once I had my pro­tag­o­nist, her life came to me in glimpses: the panic when she re­alised her younger daugh­ter was miss­ing, the re­lief when she found her again, the sur­prise at find­ing out her elder daugh­ter was preg­nant, the ir­ri­ta­tion when her hus­band seemed to take all this in his stride. Small but sig­nif­i­cant, il­lu­mi­nat­ing, mo­ments, writ­ten in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, but build­ing on each other un­til all of Jen’s traits and ob­ses­sions were re­vealed.

Writ­ing like this was the best way to be­come in­ti­mate with the char­ac­ter be­cause, like di­a­logue, it mim­ics real life – we go from col­league to friend when we learn, re­mem­ber and ref­er­ence bits of in­for­ma­tion. (Was your son late home in the end? Did you make up with your brother? How did your mum’s op­er­a­tion go?)

As Jen be­came clearer I re­alised she was go­ing to be a way for me to look at my own life from an­other per­spec­tive. Maud had given me the means to study de­men­tia from a grand­mother’s point of view rather than a grand­daugh­ter’s; Jen would give me a chance to ex­am­ine teenage de­pres­sion. I talked to my mother about her ex­pe­ri­ence of my ado­les­cent break­down, and this, as well as more for­mal re­search into de­pres­sion, fed into Jen’s voice. The book be­gins on the kind of paint­ing hol­i­day Mum and I went on. I fic­tion­alised some of our ses­sions with a psy­chi­a­trist, and I gave Jen tasks that my mother had to take on, such as show­ing phar­ma­cists my pho­to­graph so they wouldn’t sell me painkiller­s.

It’s been a cou­ple of weeks since the book was pub­lished and al­ready I have had vary­ing opin­ions from read­ers – Jen is sym­pa­thetic, oc­ca­sion­ally frus­trat­ing, heroic, funny, and acts ex­actly the way one might ex­pect. The level of de­bate has con­firmed her in my head as a real per­son, some­one worth dis­cussing, and that’s ex­actly what I’d hoped would hap­pen.

I’m now look­ing for­ward to my next char­ac­ter, not feel­ing the same level of ap­pre­hen­sion or em­bar­rass­ment about “cre­at­ing” some­one new. I know I will soon meet a new pro­tag­o­nist and get to know them and that it might take time, but will even­tu­ally feel com­pletely nat­u­ral. I’m not even go­ing to write a story where I kill off Jen.

As Jen be­came clearer, I re­alised she was go­ing to be a way for me to look at my own life from an­other per­spec­tive


Emma Healey: ‘It was the act of rep­e­ti­tion that caused the prob­lem.’

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