Usually, when put on the spot, I’ll ramble and say that both are equally as important to me, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently and I think I have to come down on one side of the fence, firmly and squarely and say that it has to be characters. Not so much character-led, because I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the characters not only have to be engaging and I have to have a certain amount of empathy for them, whether they are antagonists or protagonists, not the most important thing for me is that they are memorable.
I’m an avid re-reader, you see. My mother – although she was never tested for it – had a very retentive memory. Probably not photographic or eidetic but she forgot nothing. If she read a book or saw a film it was immediately an empty water skin as far as she was concerned, and there was no point keeping it because she only had to recall the name of the book or film and she’d remember just about everything about it. Even 40 years or so later. It was the main reason that there was no books in our house—or very few. Dad kept a few Reader’s Digest condensed books, and there was a collection of Dickens, Dostoevsky and the like in those lovely green and gold covers which will be mine one day.
The book collection was always mine, and from the time I could hold a fabric book I collected books with a passion and am still doing so to this day. I feel sorry for my mother because she never got the warm glow that I get when I sit down again with an old friend and re-read. However her house was a lot tidier than mine, as there are books everywhere…
Anyway, that’s slightly off topic.
I was thinking yesterday about characters and some of the books whose characters have clung to me all of my life. Characters like Lazarus Long in Heinlein’s Future History series. Jill from the Jill pony books. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Fitz from Robin Hobb’s wonderful books. And then I thought of some of the books which people have hyped like mad—books like “Hero” by Perry Moore, and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon and I suddenly realised I had no memory of the characters in these books. I have a vague recollection that Kavalier and Clay were comic book creators and that one of them was married, but as for Moore’s “Hero” – although I know I read it, I can’t remember one single thing about it. Hayden Thorne’s teenage superheroes in her Masks series are far more memorable—in my opinion anyway.
It actually upsets me when i realise that I’ve read a book and can’t remember one single thing from it. I think – what on earth was the point of that? I don’t re-read books because I’ve forgotten them entirely. In fact these books that I have forgotten, the two award winning books mentioned above, are both books I’ll NEVER read again because they were so distinctly unmemorable for me. I re-read books because I’ve forgotten much about the book, although I remember it being an enjoyable read. I even re-read Agatha Christie because after a certain (sadly a long) time I can make my mind forget Whodunnit and they are readable. No, annoyingly with my very favourite Christies, like Five Little Pigs and the like. But books which didn’t have such memorable characters as that book.
Talking of memorable characters, and the Jill books—there are three fat girls in the Jill books—April May and June Cholly-Sawcutt. Names that came to mind easier than Kavalier and Clay (who I had to look up on Google) – these girls are hopeless riders, overweight and the embarrassment of their famous show-jumping father. But they are so memorable that I still re-read these books written for pre-teen girls because of the fun I get re-reading them.
Don’t get me wrong. I love description too. I can get swept away reading the first few pages of Hardy’s “Return of the Native” where we learn far more about the heathland than we really need to know. But in that case—as I’ve been told happens in a couple of my books, such as Standish—an inanimate object—Egdon Heath—becomes part of the book. A character in itself as it were. Heathcliff and Cathy—perhaps—might not have been quite so memorable if their story had taken place in Torquay rather than in Wuthering Heights. The French Lieutenant’s Woman might not have been so ingrained into my soul if she was waiting under a lamppost by a barrack gate rather than staring endlessly out to sea on Lyme Regis’s famous Cobb.
In fact that’s a good case in point. I don’t remember much about TFLW—but Sarah Woodruff stays in my mind more than the plot, and will one day tempt me back to reading it one day because of that very point.
I think it’s the same with my writing too. I don’t set out to write “The story that happens during this period and makes xxxx point” I start with a character on a page. I know nothing about him, except maybe a vague idea of his looks, or what he does for a living. I write him doing something from the first chapter, whether it’s chasing down a suspect, sitting at a desk, hugging his lover before a battle, realising that he’s so far in debt he needs to go and do some prostitution and as I write him, he starts to take shape. I know that most writers don’t write this way, and they often have very detailed character sheets so they know all about their characters before they write a single word about him, but for me, that’s the fun of it all. Learning about him at exactly the same speed as the reader, getting the same thrill of “oh! He’s left handed!” or “he likes cats!” for no particular reason other than that’s what’s happening as he comes to life.
So—yeah. To cut a long story short at last, I prefer character-led books. Because it’s the characters which will keep me re-reading my friends, my books, over and over again.
Gay Historical Fiction