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