Back in my first year at uni, a friend of mine took an extra module in creative writing. I remember sitting in her room in halls, chainsmoking and drinking cheap wine while she told me all about the “character background sheets” she’d had to fill in, and how she knew details about her characters that would never even make it into her story. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous and I told her so.
But it was 2003 and I had crimped hair and was wearing an off-the-shoulder giant green top teamed with a puffball skirt and legwarmers, so I perhaps didn’t have the best grasp on the ridiculous. Or I had too good a grasp, depending on which way you look at it.
Either way, I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot lately, because I’ve finally decided to brave my novel again.
And it’s been a while. After the crazed writing frenzy of the winter, where I went from 5,000 to 70,000 words in a matter of weeks, I’ve been entirely ignoring the thing. It’s just been sat there on my laptop, taunting me a bit. I moved the folder so I don’t have to see it, and I’ve changed the subject fairly swiftly when people have asked me about it, and I’ve done my best to forget that it exists.
I’m trying to tell myself that this is a genius writing technique which I’m using to “gain distance” from my work, and make sure that I can do a better job of editing. Really, I’m just petrified of the bloody thing.
But after however many months it’s been, I decided earlier this week that it was about time I stopped being such a tiny little wuss and actually took a look at the thing. So I did. Sort-of.
Because even though I’ve not actually been writing for months, I’ve still been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about my characters, and where they came from and what they do and who their friends are and whether they have siblings and how many relationships they’ve had and what they’d tell their therapist if I were to force them to go and see one. I’ve been sitting there killing off imaginary fathers, and awarding imaginary degrees, and firing people from their imaginary first jobs, all in the name of backstory.
And the first thing I did when I opened up that Scrivener file was to spend two evenings writing down everything I know about each and every one of my characters. The stuff I’ve made up in the past few months runs to thousands of words, and none of it will ever, ever make it into the novel. But I decided that I needed to do it because if I didn’t know my characters and believe in where they’d come from, I couldn’t expect anyone else to.
So yes, I’ve done the exact exercise that I once confidently declared was entirely useless. And I’ve become the wanky writer-type who becomes stupidly attached to their characters and feels compelled to work out every tiny detail of their life. I’ve been proved entirely wrong, and I can’t help thinking that maybe if I’d just worked all this stuff out a little bit sooner then I could’ve saved myself a whole buttload of editing because I would’ve written the characters right in the first place.