I’m often asked where the inspiration for my characters comes from, and it’s a question I find nearly impossible to answer. Because the truth is, my characters just are; they appear to me ready formed, like they’ve been waiting around for the moment when I sit down to write, then they rush out like a pack of hounds, eager to get going.
And maybe that’s as it should be. I do write character-based crime novels after all, and in the words of Homer Simpson, ‘If something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing.’
I still remember the afternoon when I first sat down to write – I’d always thought of myself as a writer, but had never done anything about it, in effect I’d spent years avoiding the whole issue by recklessly going out and earning a living – and my first character, Jaap Rykel, appeared on the page before me.
It was a weird experience. I didn’t have to think, ‘Who is this guy, what does he do? What does he think? What makes him afraid, happy, what pushes his buttons and makes him go into meltdown?’ I just knew.
I don’t mean that I knew everything about him, like those character biographies which as a writer you’re urged to do, filling out pages and pages of scintillating questions such as ‘What was your main character’s first pet?’ and ‘What does your character think of Marmite?’ I didn’t know any of that. Still don’t in fact. And yet, when I threw a situation at him, the response was immediate; I didn’t need to ask myself what he would do, he showed me.
And the exact same thing happened with my other two main characters (yes, I have three . . .), Tanya van der Mark and Kees Terpstra. All of these guys run themselves, with no maintenance on my part.
Which is great, because the real work, at least for me, lies elsewhere.
When I’m writing, my job is not to create characters, but to create the world they live in: create the events which hinder them, frustrate them, stop them from achieving their goals; create the events which test and stretch them to their very limits. I guess in the end what I’m really trying to do is see if I can find their breaking points.
I sometimes feel like a mad scientist building mazes of increasing complexity for white rats to run through, or some kind of omnipotent deity toying with lesser beings, throwing obstacles in their way just to see how they react. If I had a therapist, I’m sure they’d urge me not to dwell on that last image too much.
Character can of course be a construct, literature is full of great examples, but that’s just not how I find it works. Character for me is everything, it all starts with character, and it ends with character.
After The Silence by Jake Woodhouse is published by Penguin