Writers are often asked where their characters come from, and the answer for me is everywhere. They emerge from my subconscious when I’m thinking about the shopping or whether it’s time to feed the cat - it’s always time, ask any cat – or they turn up in the that curious half-awake state in the early morning, when creativity isn’t hampered by practical concerns. They come as fragments: gestures, appearance, a line or two of dialogue - rarely do characters leap out fully formed.
That said, it can happen. I once heard Ann Cleeves say that Vera just turned up, shambling into the funeral scene in The Crow Trap, then took over the novel – then that became a best-selling series. Now there’s a dream come true.
But for me and my protagonist, Penny Wiseman, the journey started with a nightmare.
In the Autumn of 2017, I was in the first term of an MA in Crime Fiction Writing at the University of East Anglia. I had come armed with an idea. Not a plan, and certainly not a synopsis. just a broad-brush outline, a skeleton to build into a breathing manuscript.
Because plot is almost everything. Or so I imagined.
After the initial residential, I was enthused and keen to get some flesh onto the bones of my novel – the commercial one I thought it best to write. The one that would sell!
I introduced my central character at a party where a man, suspected of killing his first wife, was showing off his second. I planned to raise my character’s suspicions and to send her on a quest.
So far so good.
I began to type.
Half-way through the second page, a pale and desperate ghost drifted through the crowd. Hang on a minute! Where did she come from?
My plot idea contained no mention of the supernatural, but the ghost refused to leave. My protagonist saw her – why would she see her? Ah, yes, because …and suddenly my character had a backstory to account for seeing ghosts, a burden of guilt and regret that had coloured her life. Eureka, I exclaimed – or words to that effect.
At the next MA meeting, January 2018, I saw the collapse of my ‘this is what I ought to write’ idea. I had half a character but was trying to force her into the wrong story. My plot idea was not a skeleton. It had become a rotting heap of bones. It stank.
My tutors and my cohort tore it into shreds – carrion-feeders the lot of them.
I jest, of course. They’re lovely people, kind and constructive in their criticism. I owe them all a giant debt of gratitude.
In the pub later, as we students drowned our sorrows, the talk turned to happier things. To genre and to Chandler’s The Big Sleep – a set text on the course. I waxed a little lyrical about Marlowe, a hard-boiled PI hiding a very human core under his cynical wisecracks.
‘Why not try something like that?’ someone suggested, and I laughed.
Then the idea took root. It was the beginning of Penny Wiseman, a character who had begun to come into focus even though my initial plot was pants.
Only I sort of recognised her because, I realised, we’d met before.
PI Penny first had an airing when I was on a plane in October 2017. My antiquated laptop having died, I scribbled the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. The story featured a ‘hard-boiled’ female detective and here’s a picture of it. It shows the quality of my handwriting when I’m in creative mode.
If you ever read it, which will be hard unless I type it up, you’ll notice there’s a little something missing.
Not a ghost in sight.
I considered the scribbled PI story and the insistent ghost from my failed novel at the beginning of the course, and somewhere deep inside my brain the ideas blended. Up popped the half-formed shadow of a character with possibilities.
Her shape began to coalesce and grow. This PI was firm, or stubborn, or a pig-headed fool* depending on your point of view. She had a passion for justice and wouldn’t compromise her moral code for material gain. Fiercely independent, she was desperate to forge her own way in the world. A PI with a knack for putting her foot firmly in her mouth, and a love for junk food adding a pinch more flesh on her waistline than was strictly good for her.
Penny Wiseman. Not a female Marlowe but a softer-boiled PI who is compelled to solve the mysteries of ghosts.
And, when I’d got to know her a little bit, I sent her off to find a plot.
The eventual result was Sleeping Dogs which I hope you will enjoy.
*Bertrand Russell’s brilliant example of the emotive conjugation. A great tool for character building.