Character development – the early years…
I blame Kingsley Amis. In my early twenties, my favourite novel was ‘Lucky Jim’. Drunken escapades, silent fury towards the fools who fail to appreciate your worth – the classic book for the wannabe writer trapped in a career he doesn’t enjoy. People tell you to write what you know, but I decided to write what I liked. What would happen, I wondered blithely, if I blended the comic style of ‘Lucky Jim’ with the most exciting of genres, the crime-thriller?
Enormous success, I quickly concluded – probable membership of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, cult status in America, pallet-piles of books in Waterstones. Time to get cracking.
As a trained lawyer, I gave my protagonist the same profession; to give him access to exotic colonial skulduggery, I stuck him in Gibraltar. Balding, down on his luck, cursed by a propensity to drink to the point of oblivion, then lose a vital legal document, Spike Sanguinetti came into being. The novel started promisingly – lots of laughs, veiled hints that the plot was about to kick into thrilling action. But then things began to go awry. I needed excitement, danger, but the character I had created was too useless to handle it. Either he had to blunder accidentally towards victory (a la Big Lebowski), or transform himself suddenly into a savvy and courageous hero. The first route needed a deftness of touch I lacked; the second involved a level of implausibility fatal to the reader’s attention. I worried about it a bit, before deciding to press on and hope for the best.
So I sent the book out to agents; miraculously, one liked it enough to take it on. We had a stab at rewriting, but never quite got there. I asked the agent to send it out anyway (the confidence of youth); he did so, resulting in a cascade of rejection letters.
A little older, but not much wiser, I spotted a competition on the internet: the ‘Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award’. I entered the book, entitled ‘The Hollow Mountain’. The rules required entrants to post the first 5000 words online, then progress via public voting and professional judgments towards victory and a US publishing deal. The book moved through the early stages of the competition, then made it to the semi-final. My bruised ego received a temporary boost. Then came the rub – the need to submit the rest of the manuscript. History repeated itself and once again Spike’s adventures hit the dust.
An intense, late-night discussion with my wife (the years were rolling by) ensued. I needed to make a choice. Either keep the character and change the genre, or change the character and keep the genre. I went for the latter. Spike Sanguinetti needed to have the tools to survive in a world of murder, conspiracy and injustice. Rather than incompetent, he needed to be capable. Rather than bald and hungover, attractive and able to hold his drink. Aspects of his character remained – his career, his homeland, his aged and cantankerous father – but to bring him fully to life, I had to move him away from myself and employ a hitherto underused faculty: imagination.
The first Spike Sanguinetti book, ‘Shadow of the Rock’, was finally published some fifteen years after I’d first started to write about him. People stress the importance of character development on the page, but a character can be born, live and learn from his mistakes years before a book is even plotted, let alone written. The follow-up, ‘Sign of the Cross’, came out last year. And the title of the third novel? ‘Hollow Mountain’. Same name (minus the definite article), completely different book, but one that couldn’t exist without its curious comic predecessor.
© Thomas Mogford, 2014