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  • J Victoria Michael

Playing God - character interviews

Characters who get stroppy with you

…a writer’s quandary.

Why would I need to ‘talk’ with a character in my trilogy? I’m their creator therefore I already have a unique and intimate connection with them. So why do I need to do anything other than carry on writing?

An author can sometimes lose track of what’s going on in a character’s head. Maybe the protagonist is suddenly left dangling somewhere in the plot. Gulp, goes the writer, I didn’t see that one coming. That’s when it’s good to have a heart-to-heart with characters. Ask them to open up. Nicely, of course. No point in getting off-side with them because they’d probably just clam up on you. They’re people after all. Usually.

In my study I have an imaginary chair. There’s my chair of course, unless my bossy ginger cat gets to it first. But I do have this special chair, very safe from the ginger. I can’t describe it because it changes with whoever I ask to pop in for an interview.

If it’s the herbalist in my story, Aeryl, or her physician husband, Leachim, the chair will be one from their apartment, a battered leathery thing that squeaks with every movement. If it’s the battle commander, Gedric, it’s a no-nonsense wooden frame, very straight-backed and he doesn’t stay for long. My protagonist, Irenya, sits on the edge of whatever chair is there, though later, as the plot develops I’m never sure what chair she will bring with her.

I ask my characters sympathetic but probing questions, somewhat like a journalist, and I listen without judgement. I care about these people. If they are struggling I need to know about it. One day I realised I had a big question for the archprince, Elaaron.

I had reached a point in the plot where I needed to find out what was in his head, or more to the point, his heart. Like a reclusive billionaire or a head of state he seldom lets slip his feelings. Perhaps I should have called him Lennon; according to my name-the-baby book it means ‘cloak’ in Gaelic. All things considered it’s a pretty good description of the man. I looked across at the corner of my study where I keep the imaginary chair, a corner occupied by a battered old chest on top of which is the ginger’s basket. I wondered what sort of chair Elaaron would bring with him. I waited. Nothing. I closed my eyes and pictured him arriving. Nothing. In my head I called him. Then a little louder; he is a busy man. Nothing. Zilch. I could not get that man into my humble abode even though he’s confident in all sorts of places. In the end I gave up, decided to make myself a cuppa.

My kitchen window overlooks a garden that’s rather lovely in spring. I stood there admiring the pink apple blossom buds while the kettle rumbled to a climax. And there was Elaaron, right there and looking straight at me. The noise of the kettle was gone and I realised I was standing in one of his reception rooms. There was no fire lit and I felt the chill immediately.

Before I could say a word, he said, in a voice full of disbelief, ‘You created me?’

I was stunned. My face turned red. Yes. I actually blushed. I was embarrassed that I had dared to create a man like him. But I pushed on and asked him how he felt about Irenya, an alien in his realm, Dar Orien. His reply was instant.

‘That is none of your business.’

‘Well…er… yes, you see it is my business.’

But he was gone. For some time afterwards I felt that I really did have a cheek to make him up, document his private life – including his failures – expose the tragic details of his family’s demise and map the scars on his body. And I had failed to get the information I needed. Worse, I had a character I didn’t know. That could have consigned my trilogy to the rubbish bin.

What appeared at first to be a failure eventually revealed something important about him. Okay, he’s a hard one to crack; he was raised that way. He is a man, a widower, and a father, but he is also the archprince. It explained why Irenya sometimes had her work cut out relating to him. She needed to recognise that whenever she broached the realm’s significant issues, she was talking to the archprince, not the man, and the archprince had a realm to protect – especially from aliens.

As the plot unfolds and Irenya reshapes her core beliefs, she perceives his burdens and his fears. She accepts his feet of clay and finds his heart. Falling in love with the man – and his realm – will inevitably mean sorrow, but Irenya takes that risk.

Writing a novel is akin to the work of a detective, a journalist, an analyst, at the same time reaching for the internal poet. Does the writer always get to play God? It depends: sometimes your characters don’t allow it.

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