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.
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
Now, 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.
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.
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.
So 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.
So 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.
What an interesting blog, Sophie. As a writer of contemporary romance I had never considered the difficulties of writing a character who does not know the outcome of history. Or that the prevailing mood at the time is not what popular history reflects. Can’t wait to read this.
Thank you, Liz. It’s been a roller coaster. I suspect it doesn’t apply to all stories and periods. But when you’ve got universal catastrophic situation – like the Black Death, say – everyone is going to be affected by it to some extent.
I really enjoyed this blog, Sophie, because I’m writing my 4th novel set in the 2ndWW and can relate to your dilemmas! I try hard to not know the outcome of the war when I’m writing but I remember my mother and father said they never heard any whisper that we might not win. They were all convinced they would – taking it for granted. Positive thinking was very much around in those grim days.
I will look out for your book!
Denise AKA Molly Green
Yes, I’m sure you’ve already been down this path, Denise. It’s a new one to me and I’ve found it quite challenging, as you’ve probably gathered.
Fascinating. Would that be the book you’ve mentioned before? I’m currently reading my way through the Carter Dickson canon and have just reached the immediate post-war period. He carefully avoids political comment, but it’s interesting to see how the war had an effect on everything from a contemporaneous account.
Yes, I may even have read you bits.
I sort of knew my characters’ politics in a vague way. (I’m not very interested in formal politics, so usually my characters aren’t either.) But this first book is set in 1938 and so they’d have to work very hard to keep the big political questions at a distance – and a couple of them try to do just that, too!
Thought-provoking. Is the problem made more difficult by the fact that there are still people alive who lived through the war, I wonder? Most of my books are set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars which feels, somehow, different. That war wasn’t anything like so immediate for the people back home of course — no blitz for them. And writers like Austen portray a society where the war was hardly mentioned. That makes my task a lot easier, I reckon. I’m sure you’ll resolve your dilemmas, though, Sophie, and I’m longing to read this.
I’ve been preparing to write (- er – probably a euphemism for running away from) this book most of my life, so I’ve talked to lots of people who lived through the War. All classes, all backgrounds, different parts of the country, all political persuasions. Even one conscientious objector who used to be my mother’s boss and had a very hard time of it, I suspect. Even so, I didn’t realise what a maelstrom of feelings it was going to be. And for me, quite apart from my characters!
Thank you for the encouragement, Joanna. I, too, look forward to you reading it.
What a wonderful insight, Sophie! It is clear how much you care for your characters, but determined not to make them mere ciphers for your plot. I think the “amnesia” analogy is a good one, we write with the benefit of hindsight – at least most of the time, I am sure most authors occasionally get smacked in the eye by events in the story they didn’t see coming! Keeping your characters real is very important. I am off now to take another look at my own current work-in-progress!
Thank you, Sarah. That’s very comforting.
I love getting into the skin of my characters and seeing the world through their eyes. It’s a sort of method acting for writers. I panicked mightily at the start of my current book because I didn’t know the hero AT ALL. Everyone else had appeared in previous books in the series, but he was totally new. Scary stuff.
Method acting on paper is an excellent way of thinking about it, Jan. Every time I think I’m going just a bit barmy I shall say to myself, “I am treading in the steps of Marlon Brando”.
Oh goodness, you’re writing the New Kid In Town. Not surprised you’re scared. Much look forward to reading his story. When is it out?
The plan is April…
Brilliant. Will keep an eye out.
Fab blog, Sophie. I think one of the hardest things about writing historical novels must be to keep the characters’ viewpoints authentic for their time.
I’ve certainly found it so, Lynne – authentic AND deeply truthful to their own character when a scene calls for it AND yet still sympathetic to today’s reader. Sometimes the last one just can’t be done. The most the poor chap can hope for is understanding.
Really interesting blog post, Jenny. I love WW2 fiction so I can’t wait for you to finish it! X
Thank you Jill. There will be fireworks and dancing at Weston Towers too when it’s finished.