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October 14, 2009

Karen Maitland on ‘You can’t keep a good character down.’

I’ve recently had the great honour of being invited to join a group of my five favourite authors known collectively as The Medieval Murderers - Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson. As well as giving joint talks togther, they also write an annual joint novel together and I had the privilege of being able to contribute to their 6th novel THE SACRED STONE.

Each Medieval Murderer author writes a self-contained historical crime/thriller story centred around one object, (in the case of THE SACRED STONE, it is a meteorite) which is handed down through the centuries with the epilogue being set in modern times. Since all the authors have to write their novellas at the same time, it means we have to be able to tell each other in advance where our story will begin and end, so that the next author can work out how their character can acquire the object perhaps 10, 50, or 200 years later and sometimes in a different country. It is quite tricky trying to work out a good ending for your story before you even know what the plot will be.

This has led to some fascinating email exchanges between authors. I wanted my character to buy the sacred stone from one author’s heroine, but he, quite rightly, said she’d never part with it and my character would have to steal it. Except that I knew my character would never steal. We both knew that we could not force our characters to do something that was, well… ‘out of character’ for them.

It is always a sign that the character has come to life when the author can confidently say - my character wouldn’t do that even though I want them to do it. As an author you then have three choices - (1) Go back to the beginning and change the personality of the character. (2) give that piece of action to a different character. (3) Given in and change the plot.

As I told you in my first blog, I dream vividly, and I know my characters are coming alive when they start walking into my dreams. I’m sitting on a bus and find Zophiel, the medieval magician from COMPANY OF LIARS, is sitting there, glaring at me. Since Zophiel is a cruel nasty character that dream rapidly turns into a nightmare. On another occasion in my dream I walk into a cafe and I’m served by Pega, the bawdy ex-prostitute, from THE OWL KILLERS. But I’m fond of Pega so I don’t mind meeting her.

My main character in COMPANY OF LIARS, Camelot, the badly scarred peddler, was never meant to be in that novel at all. As I was writing THE OWL KILLERS, I created Camelot to deliver the Prologue and the Epilogue of the novel, that was all, I didn’t require him to do anything else. But I always make back-story notes for each character, so that I know what happened to them before the story starts, even if it never gets included in the novel. When I wrote Camelot’s back-story notes, I discovered that he was far too interesting to be cast in the role that I’d created him for. So I had take him out of that novel and put writing THE OWL KILLERS on hold. Then I had to write COMPANY OF LIARS first, just to shut him up.

One thing I’ve learned through writing fiction, once a character comes alive, they are no longer the author’s puppets. You have to listen to them, even if that means changing your plot. It’s as if they are standing behind you dictating their story and you shrug your shoulders and say - that’s the story they want to tell, who am I to argue, after all I’m only the author.

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