Many of the authors who participated in the Vancouver International Writers Festival this year are celebrated for writing unusual and interesting characters. The writers themselves are interesting and extraordinary characters. Still, everyone wants to know: How do these people, these fiction writers (extraordinary as they may be) come up with such unusual, believable and complex characters for their stories?
On Saturday, October 26, four writers from across Canada and beyond shared their secrets and tips for creating interesting characters. At an event appropriately called Character Roles, held at Granville Island’s Improv Centre, the accomplished authors shared with us how each dreamt up, found or chose their distinguished protagonist.
The authors, Mary Swan and David Macfarlane from Ontario; Newfoundland author Chad Pelley; and New Zealand writer Charlotte Grimshaw, are as diverse as their characters, who, I might add could not be more distinct: They are a troubled convict; a world war veteran who lost his arm; the New Zealand president with a deep, dark secret; and an Italian woman in love with marble. Each author gave the audience a taste of their carefully crafted works in a ten-minute reading at the start of the panel.
Chad Pelley read first, from his recent book Every Little Thing (Breakwater Books, 2013). Although it was a little difficult to follow Chad Pelley’s Newfoundland drawl where each word and sentence bled into the next, from what I did understand, his characters and setting were captivating enough for me to want to read the novel on my own.
With Every Little Thing in particular, Chad Pelley wanted to polarize readers – to create a character that people would read differently based their own lives and opinions. Pelley’s protagonist relives beautiful and tragic memories from his tiny jail cell, but what this convict has done to secure a life behind bars is not disclosed to the readers until they already know him well. Pelley made this conscious decision so that the crime could not sway the reader one way or another: You get to know him, his memories, his voice, but not his secret, so you like him or you don’t, but your feelings are not based on his criminal record.
Charlotte Grimshaw also writes of man with a secret, but she paints him into a political landscape. Grimshaw was interested in the internal worlds and struggles of politicians because they are people who have to put up a kind of façade. There is so much going on under the surface, and Grimshaw examines this through her protagonist in Soon (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 2012) and the other books in its series.