“I’m sorry, but HOW can you think that?”: Writing so your characters seem real
Recently, I was clearing out a stack of papers from my study. They’d been buried at the bottom of a drawer for goodness knows how long. At the top was an essay on thirteenth-century Judaism that belonged to my university days and at the bottom was a set of notes, half-typed and half-scribbled, with the words “Character ideas” jotted across the top in black ink. In a much neater section of my bookshelves, I keep blue folders on every major character in my novels, “Popular” and “The Immaculate Deception.” Each folder has an information-pack on a different character – where they live in Belfast, their school house, their birthdays, what their parents do for a living, who their brothers and sisters are, what classes they’re taking, their favourite colour, favourite books, favourite type of food, what extra-curricular they do (if any) – and a stack of magazine articles that I’ve torn out and saved, because I think they’re relevant to that character and their interests. I therefore have all the notes I need for “Popular’s” characters and it was only out of curiosity that I took a look at these very messy pages of paper that I unearthed in my jihad against clutter.
The “Character ideas” notes I found turned out to have been from four or five years ago, before I even started writing “Popular.” The page had all the original ideas for the novel’s characters, as they developed in my head. These notes reminded me that the character of Imogen had nearly been a brunette called Virginia; Carrie, Faith and Verity had all been suggested for the character that eventually became “Popular’s” ‘princess of pink’ - Kerry; Stewart had nearly been David; Blake had originally been called Andrew and he’d been Irish, not American. There had even been two extra girls in the novel’s main group of friends – a sarcastic blonde called Sarah-Louise and the prim and kind-hearted Natasha. They’d both been dropped, along with a central storyline of Meredith taking a protective interest in a sickly girl in junior school and Kerry’s feud with the fake-tan-caked Lisa Flaherty. I’d called it “the war of the Jaffa fakes” and assumed I was being witty… These notes from four years ago also revealed that another idea had been Mark developing a close friendship with Blake and discussing why he was no longer a born-again Christian. There were so many ideas jotted down all over the page. I suddenly realized that nearly every character had eventually had their name changed or their story changed, in one way or the other. Not one single one of them had stayed exactly the same from the original ideas I’d had for this book. Except for one. At the very top of the page, in neat strokes of black ink, I’d written “Meredith Elisabeth Anne Harper.” No other notes. It was the first name I wrote down for this book and it’s still the first name you’ll come across on the very first page of “Popular.” Nothing about Meredith was ever changed or debated.
I can’t remember where Meredith Harper came from. I can definitely remember various conversations and articles that gave me the idea for her, but I don’t remember where, or how, she was born so completely. One day, she just strolled into my head – fully formed. No edits. Other characters were changed, but Meredith remained the same. There was no need to change her. I know Meredith in a way that it’s difficult to define. Like Cameron in the novel, I often despair of her nastiness, her pettiness and her vengefulness, but writing her has been refreshing because she’s so effortlessly self-confident. She’s a cut-glass perfectionist, with barrels of brains and minimum tolerance for weakness. Having created the character, it’s my job as a writer not to try to make her “nicer” just to suit everybody’s taste. Writing is a bit like friendship, I think: if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one. I prefer to leave Meredith as she is and let readers decide if they like her or don’t.
It’s that idea that was at the very core of writing “Popular.” It’s right there, on those scribbled notes: “Make them likable if you’d like in real life. No preaching.” I like Meredith Harper, but there are plenty of people who don’t. That’s good. Some people find Cameron to be spineless, others think he’s endearing, others see him as snobbish and cold. A lot of readers detested Blake, but there were also quite a few writing to me or leaving comments on our Facebook page saying how much they liked him and wanted to see him back in the next books. During a book signing in Waterstone’s book store in Belfast, two girls actually got into a pretty heated conversation in front of me about Blake – with the phrase, “I’m sorry, but HOW can you actually think that?” being used by one of them. Imogen, who everyone seems to like despite her wanton selfishness and constant partying, is far more popular with some readers than her beret-loving friend Kerry, who a friend of mine described as ‘not funny, at all,’ while another said she’s ‘by far the most likable character in the book and utterly hilarious.’
I suppose that was my intention with these books. If I’ve done it right, you’ll like the characters in “Popular” if you’d like them in real life; you’ll laugh with (or at) them; you’ll hate them or love them or something in between. I’d like them to feel, in some way, real. But to seem real, they have to have good bits, bad bits, funny bits, unique bits, weird bits, bits you’ve observed from watching other people and bits you’ve made up yourself. So much work has gone into these characters – as the sheet of notes that I discovered reminded me – but it doesn’t feel that way. They have been a constant pleasure. I’ve had a lot of laughs with them and I root for their romances, their friendships and their failures. They’re great company, so much fun to write and thank God there are still a few more books to go. I’m not quite ready to leave them yet!
You can buy “Popular” from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Canada or Barnes and Noble. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle.
You can buy its sequel “The Immaculate Deception” from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Canada or Barnes and Noble. You can also rent them on Amazon Kindle US and read some fun reviews of the books here and here!
A second sequel is due out later this year. I’d love to hear from you on our Facebook page, you can find out more about the series of books (including how they were made into a play) at our website. Or if you’d like to follow me on Twitter - @garethrussell1.
About Gareth Russell
Gareth Russell is a 26 year-old writer, speaker and historian from Northern Ireland. He studied history at the University of Oxford and his first book was published in the UK and Ireland by Penguin in 2011. The “Popular” series has since gone global with its new publishers, MadeGlobal. Gareth is currently working on the third novel, as well as his first non-fiction book, a history of the British monarchy.