Most of us, I think, are familiar with a particular old myth about photography.
Certain Primitive Tribes, it claims, in Certain Quaint-Yet-Backward Places, refuse to go before the lens for fear of the camera stealing their souls. It’s a hokey and faintly condescending sort of mistake to assume of anyone (and a quick wallow in the ever-reliable mire of Google isn’t rich in verifiable examples), but I confess it feels plausible. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest, after all, that frequently-photographed individuals can indeed wind-up lacking in Personal Depth, with that dead-eyed expression of the terminally over-admired. (While we’re about it, even the language of photography drips criminal aggression: one doesn’t offer to "record a likeness" after all, but to "take a picture." Flashlight robbery?)
If those proverbial superstitious tribesmen are right – if it’s possible to thieve some abstract essence from our fellow humans by reproducing elements of their reality – then you may cheerfully consider me a burglarising bastard on an ongoing kleptospree. Explanation forthcoming.
Let’s back up a bit. Many writers complain that they have a hard time inventing names for characters, and I’ve always thought that’s a weird little detail to cause anxiety. It’s as if the ingenious Frankenstein’s Monster of plot, dialogue, theme and character has been assembled and animated without problem, only for weeks to be wasted positioning the brute’s nipples. Personally I’ll resort to the phonebook if inspiration’s being elusive – thumbing through pages until something leaps out – but everyone has their own method. Some might pinch the names of friends or family-members (again with the language of theft); others may appropriate a likely-sounding adjective and mutate it to fit. (cf: "Severus Snape". Love or loathe her work, JK Rowling’s a master of the namer’s art.)
Of course it also helps to keep an eye on audience accessibility. It’s difficult to obsess over a hardboiled knuckle-bothering detective murdermonkey if his surname has more syllables than a Welsh village and more barrels than a Gatling gun. With A Serpent Uncoiled I wanted to hint at the protagonist’s existential clusterfuck (namely that his life is an effervescing fountain of chaos upon which he’s constantly trying to impose order) without simultaneously making him sound like an exotic neurological syndrome. Hence "Dan Shaper."
Anyway. I could waffle for hours about character-naming conventions, but we’re supposed to be on the topic of reality-theft, and I tend to think the more interesting challenge lies in creating the "real" people behind the names: three-dimensional beings every bit as irrational, contradictory and infuriating as the rest of us.
Generally, writers’ creations are a cocktail of attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, "borrowed" (in the "euphemism-for-stolen" sense) from a thousand sources: internal and external, real and imagined. We exaggerate the recognisable, we mix aspects from multiple sources, we dollop our own ideas, prejudices and plots over purloined impressions of others; we hide our tracks well. But, hey – whether our metaphorical tribesman’s photograph is being hung in a posh gallery, defaced in a scrap-book collage or hacked-up and used as roaches for rollups, the crime’s the same.
A Serpent Uncoiled is published by Headline
To me, the visuals are always the fun part of creating characters. A good writer knows what to leave-out when describing his players (because nothing persuades readers to invest in a story’s emotion than the chance to decorate its world for themselves), but it’s undeniably helpful to be able to "see" your creations when writing them. Treat them as if they were real – think of them as if they were real – and they’ll adopt depth and conviction without any effort on your part. Others will always imagine them differently to you, of course – that’s fine, you can’t stop that – but the sight of them, the scent of them, the sound of their voices: these are the things that you need to be certain of, because they’re the very things that allow you to make that person believable.
For me, the process is akin to poaching. I spend most of my working days in coffee shops and pubs – ostensibly to escape the distractions at home, in fact to surround myself with oblivious humanity. It’s easy to be thick-skinned about the occasional contemptuous glare ("another smug bloody writer") if you can roleplay as a hunter in a hide, forever awaiting a trophy-kill. Constantly spotting likely-looking faces and eccentric modes of dress; people who fit the name-and-role beartrap you’ve laid beneath them. To me Dan Shaper will always be the perpetually exhausted-looking guy who – every morning at the local café – nurses his filter coffee for an hour while gazing into space. For all I know he’s a perfectly charming night-worker coming off shift, but on the page he becomes mine: a broadly-decent-but-cripplingly-guilty man on the verge of a narcotic breakdown.
Did I steal the coffee-sipper’s soul? Did I diminish his reality by thieving his face, his grubby coat, his distant expression..? What about the attractive yet unconvincing hippy-girl behind the bar at my local boozer, who I cast as Shaper’s love interest? Or the scary-looking brute who chats affably to the chuggers outside Highbury underground and signs-up to any cause going? Or the old man with the pointy head who waits at the bus stop opposite my house but never gets onboard? Or, or, or…?
These questions become especially problematic when one writes crime fiction. So many of one’s characters suddenly need to have the in-built capacity to be duplicitous, or sneaky, or downright vile that – by definition – the people one uses in those roles might be like that anyway. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m forever keeping my eyes openly for "evil"-seeming people – I don’t believe anyone ever thinks of themselves in those terms; there’s always a different perspective, or a flawed rationale for "evil" actions – but… yeah… These folks – these 3D beings whose identities I’ve appropriated for my sleazy personal use – their "real" selves can’t help but assume troubling characteristics when I look at them. Their on-page doppelgangers are scallywags, villains and killers; why mightn’t they be like that anyway? To this day I shudder whenever I cycle past a particular man – on his way to the office: black shirt, red tie, far too many teeth to fit into a normal human skull – whose likeness I’ve exploited mercilessly, in A Serpent Uncoiled and elsewhere.
Ultimately it risks becoming a messy fusion of fact and fiction, like a feedback loop between the stolen material and its owner. I steal realities in order to lend credence to my fictions… why shouldn’t the same happen in reverse? The writer begins to suspect people could be as rotten, as vicious, or as dangerous as the roles into which he’s cast them. It’s a paranoid’s worst nightmare: the flip-side of that old hokey myth.
If the photographer trundles-off on his merry way with the tribesman’s picture locked in his camera, who’s to say the stolen ghost has to rest easy?