A real treat today. Welcome good friend and fellow author Vanessa Gebbie, whose brilliant debut novel The Coward's Tale is now out in paperback. The book is getting great reviews and many folk-what-know are tipping it to win a prize or two.
I was keen to know just how Vanessa created the book's wonderful characters...
“Where do your characters come from” must be one of the questions most frequently asked of this writer. I’m sure there are dead clever explanations of our creative mechanisms, and equally sure that one such explanation cannot possiby encompass the legion ways in which creative beings function.
In Short Circuit - Guide to the Art of the Short Story - for the second edition of which, lucky writers all, mine host is penning a chapter - there is a lengthy questionnaire appended to Claire Wigfall’s chapter. She sometimes uses this questionnaire, and gives it to students to help them create a character. And it is great - I have used it in workshops, helping students enrich their characters and it works a dream. But one of the strengths of Short Circuit is that it feeds all types of writer - that’s the intention - and speaking for myself, questionnaires don’t help this writer create breathing characters as I write. I have tried, honest!
Years ago, I was just starting work in London, so must have been just out of university, early twenties. I was on a bus. It was pouring with rain. The bus stopped at a traffic lights, and an elderly gentleman struggled from the pavement to the doors and knocked politely with his walking stick - he was soaking wet. Hunched over, thin, shivering. He wore a tweed jacket, with a handkerchief drooping in the pocket. His shirt was done up wrong, and he’d tied a tie over the incorrectly done collar - one side stuck up - and the edges of the collar were worn through. His wet hair was plastered over his skull - ratty, slightly too long, different lengths left and right. He was carrying a plastic bag from some supermarket or other, with so few things in it...and he knocked, asking to be let on the bus, just politely.
The driver ignored him, sat there, until the lights changed then drove off.
I’ve never forgotten that old man, seen for a minute in 1974. Never forgotten how seeing him made me feel - desperately sad for him, angry that he was left in the rain - but more - obviously I couldn’t know - but probably he was on his way back to where he lived, alone. There was no wife waiting for him with a nice cuppa, telling him to get out of that wet jacket, and put it over a radiator. No one to remind him for the hundredth time not to go out without an umbrella. If he had a wife she’d have told him he’d done his shirt up wrong. He’d been trying to save money - cutting his own hair. Lost his wife a while back? Who knows?
But there was something about that gentleman that said he’d done things, in his life. He’d been someone. That handkerchief in the pocket. He was as lost in his elderly, poor skin as I would have been had I been sent fifty years into the future. I cared. HE made me care.
I think it’s that noticing and caring for years and years that makes us into the creator of characters. And it doesnt take much. It’s the little things that make character. Clothes are only relevant if they tell us something about the character - oh I used to have such debates about this one:
“But we have to know that she is wearing a blue dress and matching shoes, and that her hair is long, blonde with ringlets and she has blue eyes too!”
“And we have to know that he is in jeans and a white shirt, and his hair is tousled and brown, and he wears sun glasses...”
“Because I want the reader to know that’s what they look like!”
“But why? Show me something that tells me something about the character - not just them as coat-hanger... If the blue dress is important, let the dress show me why it is. Is it unironed? Dirty - a patch of food down the front? Ancient and old fashioned? Torn in six places? Much too big for her? All those say something about HER, not the bleedin dress...”
“Oh. I see. Now bugger off.”
Before I bugger off, in the spirit of paracticing what one preaches, here’s the opening of one section of The Coward’s Tale, called “The Halfwit’s Tale and the Deputy Bank Manager’s Tale.” It’s what people do or don’t do that gives them away, not what they are wearing, necessarily - although clothes can be a giveaway too.
At sundown, after rain, the streetlights spread gold over the tarmac in the High Street until the puddles fizz like a kid’s spilt drink. And Jimmy ‘Half’ Harris, on his way back from the river, will stop outside the cinema in his jumblesale trousers held up with string, and park his old pram filled with pieces of rope, cloth and sticks. He will grin with what teeth he has left in his head, and look up at Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins in khaki, begging on the steps of the cinema, sucking on a toffee. Half Harris will grin and he’ll grunt, for he cannot speak, and he may wave one hand in the air as if he’s calling down the stars from heaven. Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins will catch the grin like it’s been thrown through the air. ‘Hiya, Half. been fishing again?’
Half Harris will catch hold of the pram and rock it like it holds a sleeping child. Then Ianto Jenkins will look up at the windows of the Savings Bank where the Deputy Manager, Matthew ‘Matty’ Harris, no relation of Half’s, may not yet have left for home - instead he will be standing at the window as his Clerk Tommo Price puts on his coat and says, ‘That’s it for today then.’
Matty Harris, no relation, will have straightened and straightened his papers that need no straightening at all. He’ll have opened and closed the drawers of his desk to hear the small sounds of their importance. Then another sound may join them. The telephone on Matty Harris’s desk may ring and he’ll blush and blink and he’ll cough and say, ‘Best leave it,’ as his hand hovers over the phone like it’s a quivering breast all ready and waiting. Tommo Price the Bank Clerk will check his watch and smile, ‘New customer, could be,’ and his smile will go out of the door and into the street.
Matty Harris will wait, and breathe in deep to lift the phone, then click his tongue when it is only a wrong number. He’ll sigh and go to the window and rest his forehead against the glass.
Thank you for letting me perch on your lovely blog, Tom.
You're very welcome, Ms Gebbie. More about Vanessa and her work here. Meanwhile here she is talking a little about The Coward's Tale.