When creating characters, they need to be built from their past experiences, from their back-story. Like all of us, it’s those experiences, and the way each individual deals with them, that forms their motivation, grabs (or even repels) the reader’s sympathies, and forms their character. It’s that funny thing with writing, it’s only when the characters start to take on their back-story that they really come to life. It’s also the point where they tend to take on a life of their own. As a writer, you can no longer direct them. You can give them a nudge in the right direction, but if they don’t want to take it, if it goes against their motivation and their character, then it rings false – just as it does in life. Of course characters in books, as in life, also change, and it’s the emotional journey that the main characters follow that forms the heart of any story.
Feuding families are always effective means of creating emotionally rich back-stories – think Romeo and Juliet and the Forsyth Saga for starters – and where would Eastenders be without a good feud? The central tension is there, danger is there, and there are endless possibilities and machinations to keep the plot zinging. Plus, let’s face it, there aren’t many families where there aren’t any tensions between acquaintances or different branches of the family.
Two feuding families always lay at the heart of my latest historical novel for Honno Press, The White Camellia. When I was first working on the book, I didn’t want to take the route of star-crossed lovers, but the story of two very difference women across the divide who – like so many women do – are the
ones who have to pick up the pieces as the unforeseen consequences rumble down the generations.
So while in Cornwall Sybil has fought her way out of destitution with nothing more than her wits, and is determined she and her family will never again face the horror of being out the streets, Bea loses her materially comfortable life, and is faced with trying to support her mother and little sister in Edwardian London, with few opportunities for women to work, let alone support a family.
Of course, at some point they have to meet, when the past catches up with them, and the two women have to decide whether to continue as enemies or make their peace. Strangely enough, it was that part of the story that was both most challenging and most intriguing, and where the back-story really came into its own.
The White Camellia began as a very simple idea, but in writing the book, the characters of Bea and Sybil, and the obstacles the past puts in their way by their interlinked back-stories, took on a life of their own, so in the end I just followed, and was taken to emotional places I could not have found as a simple puppet master directing the action according to my original plan. What I had not foreseen was that, for both my heroines, the background of the family feud was also one that set them on a path to self-knowledge, to forgiveness, and (hardest of them all) to self-forgiveness. It’s a journey we all take through life, but it’s the intensity of events and emotions surrounding something as extreme as a family feud that really gives them an edge.
The book I’m working on now does not have a family feud at the centre. In some ways it’s a relief not having the emotional complexities to resolve, but I also miss it as a structure. I have a feeling it’s a back-story I’ll be returning to again in the future – and send a new cast of characters on their own emotional rollercoaster ride!