Characters In the Shadows

Characters in Shadow - people at airport, in silhouette

As a story-teller, my process begins with a character. It is then my job to bring them out into the light of day.

Sometimes I know him or her well.

Sometimes I’ve just eavesdropped on a conversation or a thought. The whole person is still deep in shadows, waiting to reveal who he really is.Characters in the Shadows + napoleon

Stage Two is when I start to think about the What Ifs.

Sometimes this will be background and setting stuff –  like what if my hero stumbles across Napoleon? Or the Hadron collider? Or an international conspiracy?

But usually it’s more personal. Characters in novels are awkward sods.

What if my character insists on making a different choice from what I expect? Believe me, this happens at least once in every book.

Shadows Cast by Big Shared Events

character with masked faceNow, at the moment I am writing a novel about a family who lived through the Second World War. And their friends. I know the characters, their history, their friends. I know what drives each one of them. Who they love. What they want. What they will – and won’t – do to get it.

Or I thought I did.

But someone I knew who had worked at Alexander Korda’s studios during the war once told me, “The War turned us all into actors. We never quite knew who we were or what we were capable of.”

And that’s exactly what is happening to my characters. They keep finding themselves torn between what it practical and what is ideal. Or find they have to choose between two courses of action, both morally right, both desired by people they love – and mutually exclusive.

What will they choose?

Alternatively, what can I do, as the writer?

Can’t change history. Can’t change the character, now that he’s off and running. All I can do is pant along behind, trying to understand him.


Acquiring Amnesia

 To some extent, I am drawing on personal stories told by friends and family members. The characters, however are all my own. Hence, so are their dilemmas.

And my problem is that I know what is happening elsewhere and how the war ended – and they don’t.


Characters in the Shadows - World War 1So to get under a character’s skin, I have to imagine what they knew, or thought they knew. And how long they have felt these pressures.

In one case, that was actually the First World War! Marshall Foch, who signed the initial armistice for France, notoriously said of the Versailles Peace Agreement, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” By contrast, both ex-soldiers like Sassoon and Robert Graves and grieving survivors, as well as the bereaved, vowed that it was the war to end all wars.

“Never again” was the watchword. The creation of Armistice Day bore witness to that.

Where do my characters stand between those two extremes?

Knowing What People Thought at the Time

George Gallup ran his first Opinion Poll in the US in 1935. Dr Henry Durant ran the Gallup Organisation’s British arm from 1937. By October 1938, Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain was getting 57% approval from those polled.

In September, after the German invasion of the Sudetenland, Chamberlain had returned from Munich waving a paper that he claimed would deliver “Peace in our time”.

Gallup added the first national question on voting intentions to their survey in February 1939. 64% said they would vote for the Chamberlain government “if there were a general election tomorrow”.  Their approval rating had gone up. The following month, Nazi troops rolled into Austria and were largely welcomed. By the following September, even Chamberlain saw no alternative and declared war. 

“Poor old man,” said my Great Aunt soberly. “We felt for him.” Reading contemporaneous news reports, I had the feeling that a lot of people agreed with her at the time.

Finding What my Characters Feel

Did that help me, the writer? Well, yes, a bit. A couple of my characters would have been in my Great Aunt’s camp on that, at least for a time.

But otherwise? If they believe that war is either inevitable or necessary, then they will be in profound disagreement with the majority of their contemporaries. And by a big margin. It’s not easy being at odds with your fellows.

That was a challenge I’d expected for one of them – a veteran of World War 1 and a philosophically-minded classicist. But the others? All of them, in fact, one way or another? Nope. I didn’t see that coming.

Of course, some of my characters do know more than others. At least one is immediately involved in politics and has immovable views on war, no matter the arguments.

Another is an international businessman whose agents have their ear to the ground in several capitals of Europe. He is pragmatic. But he has a conscience.

One young woman, with a distinctly chequered history, concentrates wholly on her own affairs and keeps her head down when people discuss the chances of war. (Yes, that would almost certainly be me, were I to time-slip into October 1938.) And, just sometimes. she’s much braver than she expects.

characters in shadows - crazy authorSo what do they feel? Mostly they don’t know. So I don’t know. And it keeps changing. Which drives me crazy. 

Sometimes they will have a moment of clarity. Usually under extreme stress.

But these people, whom I created, have lived with for several years, and deeply love, are often complete strangers to me.

It’s very exciting.

Sophie Weston Author


Inspiration : writing ideas and the subconscious

Readers are fascinated by writers’ ideas. Where do you get them from? they ask.
Over and over again.gothic fantasy woman candle mist ideas

Sometimes we writers know. And sometimes — to be frank — we don’t.

How many of us have woken up in the morning with clear ideas about a new book and no inkling about how those ideas came to be? How many of us have more ideas jostling about in our brains than we can deal with?ideas light bulb

For most of us the difficulty isn’t finding the ideas, it’s turning them into a coherent story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Here’s a case in point.

Ideas? Silver shreds for starters…

It began quite a long time ago. And it was all the fault of my crit partner, Sophie Weston of this parish… Continue reading

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night party by PhizI am posting this on Twelfth Night. Well, at least, what my family have always called Twelfth Night. That’s the 6th January. It is a family birthday in our house, so it kind of sticks in the memory.

Only — maybe Twelfth Night is 5th January. The Anglican Church think that’s the right date.

SO WHEN is Twelfth Night?

Continue reading

Broken Resolutions : the Libertà Hive Comes Clean

new year fireworks happy new year from libertà message

New Year’s Resolutions. Broken Resolutions?

New Year resolutions about to become broken resolutions?How many of us have resolved to become a better, slimmer, fitter, kinder person in the year to come? And how many of us have broken our resolutions and admitted defeat before a month — possibly a week — is out?

If you haven’t, dear reader, you’re a very special kind of person and a cut above the rest of us 😉

girl in despair as result of broken resolutionsHere in the hive we’re fully prepared to admit our failings.

So our resolution for this year — coming a little early in our Sunday blog, because 1st January occurs on a Tuesday — is to come clean about (at least some of) the broken resolutions from our past.

Asked to confess at least one broken resolution of previous years, this is what the hive members said. Feel free to gloat… Continue reading

Rosie M Banks Interview

Rosie M Banks, mysteryRosie M Banks is a mysterious figure. In theory she is a writer of fiction (romantic) created by another writer of fiction (humorous). She is not even a major character in any of his novels. But she inhabits PGW’s world as solidly as Bertie or Lord Emsworth, albeit at considerably further distance from the reader.

Last week, I looked at her first appearance along with many other romantic novelists who figure in Wodehouse World. Though she stands head and shoulders above the others.

This week, as a Christmas treat – mainly for myself, I admit – I thought I would ask this towering figure of our genre to speak for herself.

Hello from Rosie M Banks

Rosie M Banks romanticRMB  How very kind of you, Sophie. Libertà Books is one of my favourite websites. I’m very honoured to be asked.

SW [you get the feeling she has been interviewed many times before. Many, many times] Our pleasure, Ms Banks. First question, if I may: did you always want to be a romantic novelist? Continue reading

PGW and the Romantic Novelist

Just over a week ago I asked an expert why     P G Wodehouse seemed so out of sympathy with the romantic novelist. Did he know one?

romantic novelist Barbara Cartland

This is where I should probably admit that I have a sneaky image of a young Barbara Cartland pursuing him. Well, PGW was a big name when he visited London in the 20s and she was a newbie author and playwright.

If they did meet,  I would put good money on him evaporating sharpish. He had perfected the technique. His family called it the Wodehouse Glide. But nobody I’ve come across has offered any evidence of Wodehouse encountering a romantic novelist in real life.

The expert said, quite rightly, that PGW was pretty brisk on the subject of all sorts of pretentiousness. And, anyway, PGW handed out as many knocks to male poets as he did to female novelists. Continue reading

Altering History : is it OK in Historical Fiction?

cranium silhouetted against question markAltering History. In other words, changing what actually happened into something that didn’t happen; or didn’t happen in quite that way; or happened at a different time…
Is it OK for an author of historical fiction to do that?

Always? Sometimes? Never?

Does it depend on what the alteration is? Some think it’s OK to alter small things, relating to minor characters, but not decisive things relating to really important characters.

Some might say an author can do whatever he or she likes, provided the reader knows what the author has done. In other words, the author has to come clean.
Others don’t care, as long as the end result is a good read.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Queens

Continue reading

Reader, I married them (while researching the rake)

statue of a rake?As anyone researching the Regency period knows, the rake — the real Regency rake — was dangerous, unscrupulous and sometimes even a vicious womaniser.

I am very sorry, dear reader, if I have shattered your illusions.

Many of us like the fantasy of “taming” a bad boy, but most of us know in our hearts that it is nigh on impossible. Not quite impossible, of course. There are exceptions to the rule, but these are probably as rare in real life as the number of real live dukes in existence (which may be material for another story, another time).

silhouette of man's head in question markquestion mark being broken by handThere is always something to research for a new book. Often it seems obvious — military history for instance, when one sets a book around the Battle of Waterloo; or costume details for the period.

We have to invent a history for each of our characters. It may not feature in the actual book, but it is very necessary. As my latest book has proved. Continue reading

In Praise of Dirty Drafts

This week I have been remembering the first draft of my first book. Well, the first book I actually completed.

First draft libraryI remember that it was written by hand, mostly while I was waiting for books to be retrieved from the stack in a very famous library.

The leather-bound tomes, the scholarly hush, the dust dancing in the sunbeams, the academics concentrating all  around me…. oh, I remember them as if I’ve only just walked in from that day with my book bag stuffed with notes and my head full of my characters.

First draft cafe napkinOr sometimes I wrote that first draft while I was waiting for an old friend in our favourite coffee shop.

When inspiration struck there, I sometimes scribbled the idea down on any old scrap of paper — including a cafe napkin once or twice.

By now, dear Reader, you will have realised two things: Continue reading

Roman Soldiers on the Frontier : Tough or Tedious?

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall : Britannia’s northern frontier

The Roman Frontier? We Brits immediately think of Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall to defend the empire against painted marauders (the Picts or picti) from the barbarian north.

We imagine their life was cold and wet and miserable. Some of them certainly sent letters home to Rome to ask for warm woollen socks. Clearly northern Britannia was not a place for short tunics and sandals.

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall: not exactly warm and cosy?

On the German frontier, the weather was warmer than Britannia, especially in summer. Short tunics and sandals would have worked just fine.

But guarding a frontier against a potential enemy — who (mostly) didn’t attack — was probably 99% boredom.

So how did the soldiers fill their time? Continue reading