Saturday, 18 October 2014

Guest Author Elizabeth Housden writes about Creating Characters.

Elizabeth is a professional actress and director. Her first performance was at the age of three and she has worked in the theatre for many years, performing everything from Shakespeare to pantomime, turning to directing some years ago.
Having taught drama for some 15 years at Bedales School in Hampshire, Elizabeth still runs the theatre company that she founded in 2001, ‘The Misrule Theatre Company’. In addition to writing all the original material for Misrule she has also been writing novels for both children and adults for the last 20 years.
Elizabeth is currently working on a series of books for older children called ‘The Barbary Trilogy’, the first one, ‘The Hollow Crown’, to appear on this website soon.
Married to Michael, who works in the City, she has four children, two sons and two daughters, with 6 grandchildren between them. She and Michael live in London and Hampshire.

You can read more about Elizabeth at

I've often wondered how on earth it is so many deeply talented writers manage to write such glorious stuff if they hadn't first been trained for the stage.  But few have been.  I admire them hugely. 

Why, you ask? 

Well now, theatre - the greatest and most clever confidence trick of all time.  Everything is illusion - the sets are not Aladdin's cave or a castle in Denmark, neither are they a bar in New York or a blasted heath, they are drawings, digital images, bits of painted cloth, lumps of polystyrene decorated to deceive.  The people who speak to you from those sets are not really old tramps or murderous kings or angry young displaced princes hell bent on revenge, they are actors pretending to be them.  Everyone who works in theatre knows it, the audience knows it, the people who own the theatres know it, and yet people flock in in droves, paying out good money to sit and watch things unreal performed by real people who are not what they seem and the ones they like best are those that con them better than others.  That's what a great actor is, simply a first class con artist.

How do we achieve this?  There are many tricks and dodges, ways to walk and talk and sit and die.  There are costumes and props, make-up and lights.  To help us, too there are great theatre practitioners all round the globe who have given their lives over to helping professional con artists trick people ever more convincingly.  One of the greatest, Konstantin Stanislavski said, "I go to the theatre to see the actors perform the subtext.  I can read the text at home."  Thus it is, as actors we must get into the character, see behind what he says that makes him the real person, observe what others in the play say to him or about him and work out what he is like.  Then we play it, knowing what he REALLY is.  Simple.  Well, no not really.  It is a hugely time consuming, totally absorbing, frustrating, fascinating journey.  The rehearsal process which we all go through is enlightening, infuriating, exhausting and we love it.  Through it we learn about ourselves as well as those we play.  We never stop learning.  We learn about our fellow actors and we are privileged to be allowed to get to know other humans in such an intimate and personal way.  We are the most fortunate of people. 

So, how does this relate to my admiration of writers who have not been put through this rigorous process?  I have acted off and on, all my life, and still do so, interspersed with my roles as wife and mother and all that goes with that.  I spent my required years at drama school and loved them, hated them, cried, laughed and screamed at my inadequacies.  As I got older and the parts became fewer and further between, which is normal for most women, I started to write, firstly plays, the format of which was so familiar to me and then, later, gradually, slowly I began to write novels.  Now I can't stop. 

To begin with, I thought how lucky I was that now I could create my own characters.  I was not confined to those of the playwright but could branch out on my own.  But suddenly I knew I needed a back story, not just the one behind the whole novel, but each character had to have one.  Why did he or she talk the way they do? What makes them angry, sad, happy, laugh? Why are they jealous?  Of whom?  Why are they not jealous if they should be?  The task was huge but had to be undertaken or these imaginary people would not be real.  I wouldn't have conned anyone, not even myself.  I suddenly knew my job, as I had all my life before as an actor.  It was a wonderful and terrifying moment.  And if a writer hadn't been trained and worked as a professional actor, as I have, God knows how they'd start.  I am in awe. 

I am often asked what I think of my characters - no, more specifically I am asked always about the two or sometimes three main characters in the book, generally the "lead" man and girl and the villain!  What makes him villainous?  A fellow writer acquaintance of mine said once, if someone really upset him badly, he would put him in a novel and kill him very slowly and painfully.  I know exactly what he means!  It is rare for me to kill someone in a novel, but I might slip in the odd characteristic here and there of people who have irritated or infuriated me!   Do I like the male lead? You bet I do!  Given the opportunity to create someone completely wonderful, why wouldn't you?!  The lead male in my latest novel, I have published four so far and this new one is the fifth, is to die for.  He makes me go weak at the knees.  But this book is also a first - my first historical novel.  It is called The Gentlemen Go By. 

I have loved the disciplines that history demand and impose upon you.  I have had to remember how long it took for news to be taken from one part of the land to another.  I have had think about fashion in clothes, fashion in morals, food, drink, transport as well as what was actually happening in the world then, both politically and socially and also physically - famous storms, erupting volcanos, tidal waves.  Were there any?  What impact would they have on the lives of those imaginary people who inhabit the pages?  Imagination hemmed in by necessary disciplines is powerfully enlivening.  This new story of mine is set in the years 1788/9 - to save anyone looking that up, 1789 was the date of the French Revolution.  It was the time of Les Mis.  But the setting was a very different place. 

This tale is derived from a real character and in a place that I know well and that in many ways has changed less than in other parts of the British Isles.  Right at the bottom of Great Britain just a few miles south of the city of Southampton, in the middle of the northern stretches of the English Channel is a tiny, diamond-shaped island.  It is called the Isle of Wight.  Here it was I grew up.  For some reason, and I'm not sure why, British people measure the size of bits of the world in relation to the Isle of Wight.  Example:  How big is Barbados? About the same size as the Isle of Wight.  Example :  How many people are there in China? Well, if you stood the whole population of China next to one another without a space between them, you would fit them all onto the Isle of Wight.  Example:  How big is London?  Oh, huge - four times the size of the Isle of Wight.  The examples are endless.  The real man on whom this tale is based was nothing like the man in my story - at least I doubt it.  But he was a smuggler. 

This real, eighteenth century fellow, then, was an Islander and a man of the people.  He was a crook, really, and involved much of the populace where he lived on the Island (the islanders always call the Isle of Wight, 'The Island', by the way - it is the only Island they care about, you see).  They helped him smuggle, hide the contraband, distribute it and share in the profits.  But it is there the similarity ends, however.  The hero of my story was a French aristocrat, dashing, handsome, sexually magnetic, and the girl he falls in love with utterly worthy of him and matches his courage, imagination, commitment and sense of humour in every way.  I know nothing of that aspect of the real man, but that doesn't matter for this is my story, they are my hero and heroine and I can do with them what I will, given the restraints of human nature and physique and the era in which they lived.  As I do when researching a part, getting to grips with the clues in the text, every time I write a book, I use those same rules and apply them to my imagined people.  

I spend long hours just thinking about them, inventing scenes that never appear in the book and are not meant to be used either, but simply so I get to know them better, to make them real. I have to know what they look like, how they dress, what they eat and drink, what makes them laugh and cry, what turns them on.  Why do they like this person or that, how they have been hurt, what they were like as children, or if they are children, what they hide from adults, and how they say it.  I have done much work with young people and I have been lucky enough to be the confidante of many so I know how they talk to one another when adults are not there, how they think, what makes them laugh or angry and so positive in the face of desperate uncertainty and questioning in the midst of cast iron reality. 

I suppose in the end, people will ask, so then, what about the character you know most, namely myself?  Am I in these books?  In many ways yes, how could I not be.  Every actor brings his or her own experiences of life and uses them within the restraints put upon them by the character he or she plays.  So, I suppose it is with me, but none of the girls in my novels is actually me and neither are they any of my friends although some believe, quite wrongly they are.  For example, if I write about a character who has a phobia of something, say, then she would probably be afraid of heights or spiders.  I know what it is like to be afraid of heights and spiders because I am.  I can write about it with conviction.  I couldn't really write about a phobia of say, balloons or clowns or snakes (and I love snakes, actually) because I don't really understand those.  But these women are not myself. I only draw upon one or two things I feel or hate or enjoy to make them real to my audience.  I lend bits of myself to my creations, that is all. 

Will you like the Marquis Jacques St Aubin if you read the Gentlemen Go By?  I would like to think so.  Not just because I like him and we like our friends to like other friends but because he appeals to you - he is real and you can visualise him, his crooked smile, his eyes that hold too much knowledge, maybe knowledge he shouldn't have, the frisson of danger about him, the way he raises a glass of brandy to his lips and smiles at you just before he drinks it. 

Oh yes, he is to,die for... 

And he's mine.
Please drop by The Scribbler next week for an excerpt from my novel, Dark Side of a Promise. Drake Alexander has tracked his man to Bangladesh. After his first encounter with the villainous men that work for him, the police are now involved. Drake explains his actions to the Officer in Charge, Inspector Bitan Chowdhury

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