Author and poet

The birth of a character


I suspect no fiction author can exactly explain how a character comes to be born. How did Sherlock Holmes come to be? Or Gandalf? Paddington Bear, or Milly-Molly-Mandy? And why do some characters seem to take on a life of their own in the public imagination, becoming almost a real personality in human history?

I once heard that Charles Dickens claimed to meet flesh-and-blood people in the street who had stepped out of his own stories. Something similar happened to me. I was writing a children’s story and had described a teacher who was quite unusual in his features and dress, because he was actually from another world. Mr. Z. Keele was 6’6” tall and very thin. He wore a blue denim jacket and jeans. He had startling blue eyes that twinkled behind his half-moon spectacles and long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. During my mid-morning break, I stepped out of the front door to visit the 7-11 shop in my street and almost bumped into a man who exactly fitted the description of my fictional teacher. This man even twinkled his eyes at me, as if he was in on the secret. I was very spooked and ran back home without purchasing the supply of chocolate I meant to get!

I can only speak for myself and give a loose description of the way the people in my stories come to be – ‘loose’ because, to tell the truth, I can’t actually pin down a precise formula. Sometimes, I know there is a story to tell about some kind of human experience and I set about asking, ‘if this happened to this kind of person, how would they react?’

My fictional project developed from research into mystical experiences and, in particular, into historic and modern claims concerning angelic realms. In The Angel of Secrets I’m exploring how a modern – even post-modern – sceptical person would behave if they had an encounter with an angelic being. My character needed to be someone with no interest in the paranormal or supernatural. This person had to really believe that rational considerations would put paid to superstitious ideas about divine interventions. This meant a character with a legal mind, perhaps a barrister experienced in logical argument, would be ideal.

My extensive post-graduate research into mysticism led me to realise that most mystics and scholars through the ages have been men. The theologians who debated ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ were men. The wisdom offered to Adam by an angel called Raziel had to be handed down to ‘righteous men.’ I turned this around by making my main character a woman.

Because I am living in Wales and wanted to include various elements in the story that could take place in a magical landscape where, even today, people claim to experience otherworldly events, I decided my London lawyer would have a Welsh surname: Morgan. I can’t recall how she came to be called Beth, but when I realised this was short for Elizabeth, I was really pleased with this choice. Elizabeth is very formal, and Beth uses her full name when she is in the courtroom. In contrast, the shortened ‘Beth’ is quite sweet. Immediately this gives us a contrast between the hard-edged, furious precision of the ‘legal eagle’ and the softness, possibly the sadness, of a young woman who has never known her father.

I was trained at art school and have a very visual mind. As with all my characters, I very quickly got to ‘see’ what Beth looked like. How she dressed (after all I did once work as a dress-designer), how she wore her hair, and so on. And, for additional depth, I explored possible personality traits from an astrologer’s perspective, so Beth has her own horoscope in my character folder (see Astrology).

The birth of a character