Once, after watching a poignant TV miniseries called The Lost Prince – I went to my bookshelf to look for information on this tragic boy, Prince John. I found there a memoir by the Duke of Windsor, one of John’s brothers. John gets but two passing mentions in the text which is a book I bought at a church fete. On the flyleaf the price – twenty cents – is written in pencil. The thing that drew my eye was the handwriting and the name of the original owner. In a fat and fluent uncontrolled almost-copperplate she has written her name in dark blue biro – Valda Goldbloom. I lost interest in poor little Prince John and went off on a search for Valda. In the Melbourne phone book there were two V. Goldblooms. Perhaps one or even both of these are Valdas. And Valda did not then have a presence on the world wide web. She is there now, although which of the web manifestations, if any, is my Valda, remains to be seen. Perhaps someone here in the audience is her niece or grandson.
What’s the connection between Valda and the Duke of Windsor? Where are Valda’s love letters?
Not that I have any real desire to see Valda or to speak to Valda. Her name, discovered on the yellowing page of an old Pan paperback, is a delicious source of inspiration, a bright invitation to give her a childhood, a romance, a large family of amazing children, a secret lover, a fondness for a particular shade of pistachio, a deadly vice, a winning smile, a garden in the Open Garden scheme, a career in television – well maybe not a career in television – but you see once I have been gripped by the notion of her, she is mine and I can make her. Did I find her or invent her? In a funny kind of way I think I was gifted with her. I feel that she came to me, trailing quite a bit of context and mood. She is somehow mingled with the exquisite nostalgic doom of the miniseries, with the battered old book, with the church fete (how did a Goldbloom book end up on the stall at St Barnabas – how did I end up at St Barnabas for that matter). Mind you Valda has only come as far as the Blue Marquee at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, but give the woman time, she needs to buy a wardrobe and have her hair done and maybe get a PhD in Business Management. Or a facelift. Not only do I love to feel a character stirring like this, but I also revel in the invention and/or discovery of titles for fiction – such as ‘Valda Goldbloom in the Blue Marquee’. That has a certain appeal. You see, perhaps as I speak Valda is sitting beside you, not knowing which way to look.
Maybe she breeds cocker spaniels. I chose cocker spaniels because there are many other breeds of dog I can’t confidently spell. Her husband is an orthodontist dedicated to Valda and to the accumulation of wealth. Valda is so depressed that she is contemplating leaping from the top of a tall building. How did Valda get into this mess? Well, I think that is for her creator to discover in the process of her creation. I will have to get on with the process of making Valda up – for that is what she is now – made up. That’s what fiction is – a made up story with its own life. Whatever the inspiration, whatever the ingredients, the final thing is an invention of the writer’s making.
I sometimes hear students and teachers of writing complain that lectures and workshops and text books purporting to be guides to writing fiction do not actually explain how to create a character. They do not reveal the secret and the rules. Now I suspect that there is something here that can not really be reduced to rules. And if there is a secret, it is like one of those secrets that can only be revealed to the seeker by the seeker. It’s Zen. Like most aspects and elements of writing fiction, there seems to me to be no straight answer to the question of how it is done. It is not exactly technical – it’s – well, kind of spiritual. If you listen to the many writers speaking at this festival, I think you will find that every now and again one of them will say something that hints at the fact that way back behind the stories there lies a certain attitude or disposition – the writer is a person who constructs fictions, fables, narratives – whatever you call them – and the writer sits at a particular angle to the world, with a particular kind of alertness to the shape and possibilities of people and events and experiences, with a keen eye and ear for the way things work, the way things might work, the way a character and a series of events might intersect and work together and unravel and wind up and so forth. I sometimes think that maybe the fiction writer lives half in reality and half in fantasy, forever playing with the elements of so-called real life and consciously or even unconsciously constructing new narratives – just in the course of everyday life. The writer’s pleasure is then to translate all that into written language for the pleasure of readers. And so as the writer writes, the characters form and develop. The whole process is in a sense on-going – so that when a character emerges in a story, the plot, the character, the mood, the meaning – these are all mixed up together, all part of each other.
The critics and the reviewers often come at the thing from another angle again. They say – this character is convincing, or flat, or tragic, or hilarious – or whatever. They are not so interested in how any of it came about, as in what the final effect was on them as readers. Which is of course fair enough. But behind all this, behind the reader, the reviewer, the wondering would-be writer – at the back of the fiction is the writer. How did the writer create the character? Found, invented? Well, I think bits of them are found, bits are invented – maybe the point is that the writer is there at the centre of it all, or at the back of it all – with that particular attitude, that state of mind, that readiness and willingness to fabricate the fiction – maybe that is what matters. I really am saying that I don’t think there are rules and formulas for this. All I think you can do is examine what other writers have done with characters in order to nourish your own process of the creation (and finding) of characters in your fiction.
I think it is so important to realise that the characters are part of the fabric of the fiction. Sometimes writers speak of characters who have arrived all by themselves in the narrative, and have proceeded to take over, leaving the writer wondering and marvelling and following as if from a distance. That does happen, it happens often, and it is truly one of the joys of writing fiction. You think you are writing such and such a story with such and such a set of characters, and then suddenly you find yourself typing something that is said or done by a character you had not thought of, and all at once that character starts to speak and act and change the direction of things. This is part of the glorious magic of writing fiction.
Perhaps the most fun incidence of this in my own case was the appearance of Vanessa the talking cat in my two thrillers – Unholy Writ and Open For Inspection. I certainly never set out with a talking cat in mind. I might write a third book in the series, this one written by Vanessa. Another example in my work is the character of Virginia O’Day who wrote all the letters in Dear Writer. Another way of looking at this is to say that there might be a lot of me in Vanessa and Virginia, but because they are their own characters I don’t have to take full responsibility for what they might say or do. So they are very liberating for me.
Fiction is of course very bound up with the real world, and when characters are created they may have their genesis in who knows what part of reality, but then they take on their own being. Recently I read that Tom Keneally was inspired by a real live journalist called Caroline, and he created a character called Alice . Apparently he said that as soon as she became Alice she ceased to be Caroline, he forgot she had been inspired by Caroline, and she took on a life of her own. Tom made Alice up. Maybe Caroline doesn’t think so. But Tom thinks so. Who is in charge here? Well, that’s another matter for debate.
Actually, I sometimes think at this point, of the legal questions of the algebra of a baby’s genetic heritage.
Let X equal a baby
Let A equal a woman
Let B equal a man
Let C equal a woman
Let D equal a man
Let the egg of C and the sperm of D be hatched in the uterus of A to form X
Let X be fed and clothed by B What is the value of X?
So who owns that story?
Above my desk hangs this picture of Charles Dickens sitting in his chair surrounded by his characters who float about in the air. Are they the creatures of his dreams? Or are they spirits who have arrived from some unknown world of the imagination, spirits who have decided to visit Dickens for the purpose of becoming flesh as his creations. Or are they fragments of the life, the experience of Dickens, transformed by his heart, by his imagination – these are all such inexact terms – created, in the end by the use of words, by the music of his language.
I don’t actually think there is any answer to the question posed to the panel – not that that matters of course. I think the creating of characters is a truly mysterious process bound up with the mystery at the heart of storytelling. People love to hear stories. People love to tell stories, and yes, stories are inhabited by characters, but the music that is a story is so complex, so thrilling, that it seems to me it does not easily tease out into its parts. Not from the inside, anyway. You can take Wuthering Heights and examine the characters from the outside in all their amazing diversity and drama. But you won’t ever know where Emily got them from, and I doubt that Emily could have told you. They are integral to the thing the writer was doing. They are part of her gift to the reader. And the readers, all the millions of readers of Wuthering Heights make the characters again as they read. So perhaps there is not only the question of where they might come from, but the matter of where they are going.
My Heathcliff probably is not your Heathcliff. My baby X is not your baby X. As I read I make over the characters again and again, and so do you. And so does Valda Goldbloom. Bless her.