Sue Featherstone talks about what authors really mean.
‘Tell me, Famous Author,’ asks the chat show host, ‘how do you plot your novels?’
Famous Author titters and shakes her head in a fey manner. ‘Oh, I don’t plot,’ she says in a breathless, girly voice. ‘My characters have a life of their own. They simply take over my pen.’
Balderdash! This Reader waves a furious fist in the direction of the TV screen or digital radio. (Just for the record, I try not to shake my fist when I’m listening in the car – instead I clutch the steering wheel even more tightly and grind my teeth.)
Regardless of location, though, I’m screaming, ‘Your characters are made-up. They don’t take over because they are NOT real!’
But Dumb-Ass Interviewer carries on regardless.
‘Now, Famous Author,’ she asks, leaning forward, ‘you must tell us whether you base your characters on real people.’
Real people? As opposed to what? Totally non-existent people?
Another tinkle of laughter from Famous Author. ‘Oh, I’m so lucky,’ she burbles. ’My characters always seem to pop fully formed into my head. It’s a gift, I suppose.’
And, finally… ‘This is my last question, Famous Author. Did any of the events in your novel really happen?’
Famous Author shakes her elaborately coiffeured head and thoughtfully chews a manicured finger. ‘No, no … it’s all in my imagination. Once I have my characters I find there’s a sort of compulsion to tell their story. I don’t know where it comes from…’
Of course not!
Let’s bust some myths here:
One: characters don’t take over your pen. But, and I never, ever, ever, ever, believed this until I co-authored my first novel (A Falling Friend with my friend Susan Pape), sometimes you do find your characters taking the story in new directions.
For instance, Susan and I had a rough story arc for each of our characters, Teri and Lee, but it wasn’t until we started writing (and the characters started to develop as believable people as opposed to figments of our imagination) that we realised Lee, the character I was writing, would fall in love with one of the male protagonists.
But control always lay in our pens: it was only because Susan and I decided this was where we wanted the story to go that Lee was allowed to continue her affair.
And the imagining was us – the real people, not Lee, the made-up person. Or her counterpart, Teri.
Myth buster number two: neither Teri nor Lee are based on actual, real people.
Don’t be silly. Of course they are! There are bits of me in Lee, bits of other women I’ve known and bits of the woman I’d like to be.
And Teri? Slim, stylish, outspoken, funny… Well, Susan insists she’s nothing like Teri, but…
The same applies to the other characters too. Like a can of baked beans, each and every one contains 57 varieties of human beings in one body. And they don’t come fully formed. They grow and develop as we edit and re-write and cross things out and start again.
Let me tell you a secret: Lee started life as a man but she was so fiendishly dull as a bloke even her own mother wouldn’t have wanted to read her story. So, we changed her sex. And that’s when she began to come alive.
Finally, myth number three: have the events we depict happened?
Yes. And no.
So, no, I’ve never had an abortion, never slept with any of my bosses (or even wanted to!) and I’ve never been friends with anyone quite like Teri.
But, yes, the bed bunk sex story in our next book (to be published this summer) is a true, albeit slightly embellished version of a story told to me by a friend.
Ditto: the woman in the gym changing room in A Falling Friend who boasts about her randy son. Also true, and also embellished. (I saw her the other day and wondered if she realised she’d been immortalised?)
And, as for Teri’s raunchy wooden floorboards and her fluffer…
Whatever Famous Author may claim, it’s practically impossible for writers not to draw inspiration from the people and the world around us.
And, sometimes to wish we could steal from the lives of our characters too; like Lee’s purple Dr Martens boots.
I’d love a pair.
Whatever Teri says, whatever she does, it’s all leading her toward disaster. But she’s not one to heed a warning. What more can best mate Lee do? Besides, Lee’s got her own life to sort out.
A Falling Friend is the tale of two friends – one who always seems to make the wrong choices, and the other who’s always there to catch her.
After spending her twenties sailing the globe, making love on fine white sand, and thinking only of today, Teri Meyer returns to Yorkshire—and to studying. That’s when she discovers John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, and poet of all things depraved. What she doesn’t realise is even beyond his grave, his influence over her is extraordinary. To hell with the consequences.
Having gone out on a limb to get old friend Teri a job at the university at which she teaches, it doesn’t take long for Lee Harper to recognise a pattern. Wherever Teri goes, whatever she does, every selfish choice she makes, it’s all setting her up for a nasty fall. But Teri’s not the sort to heed a warning, so Lee has no choice but to stand by and watch. And besides, she has her own life to straighten out.
WIN! WIN! WIN!
To win a paperback of A Falling Friend, head to Chicklit Club’s competitions page for entry details
(Giveaway open worldwide!)
Sue Featherstone is a former journalist and public relations practitioner turned academic. She completed a degree in English Literature as a mature student and subsequently moved into higher education, teaching journalism to undergraduate students at Sheffield Hallam University. At the beginning of 2017, Sue left Sheffield Hallam to focus on her writing. Together with her friend and writing partner Susan Pape, she has written two successful journalism text books.