Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’
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Last night I went for a meal with all of the characters in the novel I’m working on. After that we went for a drink in a pub, then we came home and watched some television. It all happened in my head, of course – but pretending to do this helped make the characters more real.
What I’m writing has little to do with pubs, restaurants or television – in fact, the protagonist doesn’t even own a TV set. He’s hiding out in a shed with beds from a gambling addict who’s followed him across Europe – because our hero stole a big night’s winnings from him several years earlier. He can’t afford restuarants; he does go into a pub, but only once – to get over an acid comedown. But I found that putting my characters into everyday locations helped fill out the little details that might otherwise be missed.
Irvine Welsh is to me the modern master of creating engaging characters – and God is in the detail. Take Bruce Robertson in ‘Filth’. As well being coke-addled, violent, abusive and misanthropic, we also hear about his trouble finding a pair of ‘slacks’ to wear – giving us another angle on his disorderly home life and making the more extreme aspects of his character seem real. Graham Greene was another master of the detail – it is Maurice’s reflections on his writing in ‘The End of the Affair’, rather than his feelings for Sarah, which make him three-dimensional.
So what happened in the pub/restuarant/on the sofa? Well, I worked out who’d most likely be short of money and avoid buying rounds, making others feel awkward. I also worked out who’d drink the most with their meal in the restaurant; who’d dance if there was a disco in the pub; who’d sit furthest away from me on the sofa and why. In short, I made them into real characters, and hopefully this will echo its way onto the page.
It’s also something that I hope I did to good effect in my mystery novel, ‘New Holland’. Once upon a time mystery and thriller writers didn’t need protagonists with too much substance – the plot drove everything. In the sixties and seventies, however, they began to grow personalities. My protagonist in ‘New Holland’, Jonathan David, drinks green tea because he’s trying to avoid alcohol – though he’s pretty sure he’s not an alcoholic. He puts the radio on and tries to get into the latest pop music, but it sounds like rubbish and he turns to an eighties’ station. Nothing to do with the missing governor of St. Petersburg he’s trying to locate, but everything to do with (hopefully) making him seem real.
So, tip number one from writing club – once you know who your protagonist is, take him for a pint. Then watch: closely.
Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in Russia and published by Espresso Books. He also writes for the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’.