So I wake up one morning and the elder son has transformed into a faun. Mr Tumnus to be precise.
I kid you not – he is sipping tea in the kitchen, bare-chested bar the red scarf with furry legs and the most extraordinary hair and ears.
In a household with two teenage boys, I should be used to these fanciful (for which read “fancy dress”) transformations yet they still take me unawares; picture, if you will, the same son as an inflatable turkey last Christmas.
It is not in the genes. Call me a spoil sport but for myself I am not so very keen on dressing up. During my first year as a presenter with the BBC I was kitted out in an outfit the weight of a small carpet to “play” Elizabeth 1 for Children in Need. This seemed all well and good and I was tickled pink when the rather grand costume arrived from BBC HQ with the name tag “Glenda Jackson” stitched inside suggesting she had worn it too – but the logistics proved more challenging than I had anticipated.
It poured with rain the night of the fundraiser (why is CIN not held in the summer?) and the dress took on a lot of water while I was being filmed outside. By the time I sat back down inside alongside a roaring fire, clouds of steam filled the set. The floor manager, bless him, thought it was dry ice. It wasn’t. It was the water from my dress evaporating …
But back to Mr Tumnus. The mother in me is worried on two fronts – first he is moulting faux fur everywhere and second I am concerned he will catch cold but I bite my tongue for on reflection if he has the confidence to go topless on the school bus at this time of year, who am I to spoil his fun?
All of which sets me thinking, as I return to my desk, about characterisation. What is it that brings our characters to life for our readers? Do they really need furry legs? Weird ears? Funny mannerisms?
If I have learnt anything from years of experimenting , it is that effective charactisation is all about all the C’s. The C-hallenge for me - to make my C-haracters – C-onvincing,C-ompelling…and to make the readers C-are.
Whether that requires the extremity of a bare chest and furry legs is at the author’s discretion. For myself I would quite simply recommend thieving.
Oh yes I know there are plenty of wonderful tips suggesting lists and detailed character portraits before you start writing. It’s good advice - but that’s not how I work.
After so many years in television, I tend to take quite a filmic approach to writing. Probably weird to others – but my characters simply come calling and I just live with them in my head for a while - then watch and wait.
The stealing is not something I do deliberately, of course. But I spend a lot of time people-watching and interesting things that I spot while I am out and about just tend to turn up in my characters down the line. I might watch a woman at the bus stop fidgeting with one of those shopping trolleys – rocking it to and fro. Annoying. And then some weeks or months later one of my characters will do the same thing.
I don’t steal whole people, of course. That would be actionable and wouldn’t be fiction but all observations go quite subconsciously into the big melting pot and I never know what is going to come out.
By the time I have come to know my characters well and placed them in a story, it genuinely feels as they are leading the way; as if I am reporting something real - something that has actually happened rather than something I have created.
Which, on reflection, I perhaps should not be owning up to... because it sounds just a little bit odd.
Though certainly no more odd than a faun, setting out bare-chested in this terrible cold, moulting fur all over my carpet.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.