Characters are not really creations, but autonomous entities who appear suddenly and introduce themselves to an author. That is perhaps why it is so hard for writers to work with characters not of their own creation, because characters evolve out of the writer, like a spare rib that suddenly takes shape and form and begins to speak with their own voice.
If you think about how tempting it is to write updates on characters like Romeo and Juliet – or a Jane Austen character – and how hard it can be to maintain the original spirit of the character, it indicates how personal the creation of a character is.
Even a character’s name has to be exactly right – finding Edward Fenshall’s name took a comparatively long time for me, as nothing fitted exactly the character I had in my mind. It was only when I thought up the name “Fenshall” did I know I had the right name for him. I always knew his real name was Edward, though, whatever he called himself in the story.
I don’t often talk about the nuts and bolts of writing – as Dame Judy Dench once said about acting and sex, you should just do it and not talk about it.
However, whereas some characters have a defined lifespan and a conclusion to their story, others have legs for a writer. Maybe it is because they capture the author’s attention rather than the reader’s – or maybe their story needs more time to tell and it takes more time to unearth their soul and what makes them tick.
The character of Edward Fenshall literally appears in a hotel lobby one day – although at the time not as himself. I was immediately fascinated by him and recall describing him as looking like a shark. I knew what he was and who he was instantly.
That might sound odd – but not every author makes complicated plans and notes for their stories and works to them. I quite like my characters to tell me their stories themselves without any intervention from me, apart from the act of writing it down. Some characters have more of a story to tell than others – and Edward Fenshall was one of those characters, I found.
On reflection, he developed from several strands in my life. He is a shortish man with a large head because he was born with mild achondroplasia and resultant megaloencephaly – a larger head than usual. The condition can result in complex medical problems, but not always. At the time the character began to take shape, the Zika virus was in the news – which results in a child being born with a smaller head than usual.
It reminded me of an elderly woman who used to sit in the corner of the post office when I visited it with my mother as a child – I must have been around two or three years’ old. The woman was tall, thin, with a curved spine and an exceptionally long face. I now know she had Marfan syndrome. Even as a small child, I was terribly moved by the fact she was always alone and seemed to sit there every day. It bothered me a lot.
This seems an odd starting place for the character of a short American, but that is where the character of Edward Fenshall came from – my memory of someone whose physicality might have placed restrictions on them and made them isolated.
Not tall, not dark, not handsome…well, perhaps handsome
In my first novel in the series ROME ALONE, I had created a character who was a classic Italian stallion – Alessandro was tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, irresistible and aristocratic. By the time I began to write ROME AGAIN in 2015, I was aware that I wanted to create a romantic hero who was perhaps the opposite of this, but at the same time was charismatic, successful and magnetic, if not an obvious classic hero in a romantic novel.
I am interested in characters who are not what they seem, or do not behave as they perhaps should, and have very human frailties and weaknesses. I may write them as comedic, but I am deadly serious about them as characters.
In VERONA ALONE, as I wrote Edward Fenshall, beneath his tough, professional exterior, he began to unravel and display all sorts of frailties and weaknesses without any effort on my part. He is unpopular and brash and his career is frequently saved by his mentor, who backs him time and time again for personal reasons. However, there is something about the character that is worthy, regardless of how he behaves.
Edward Fenshall is exceptional at his job, but within him is a weakness not even he is aware of and which his professional psychological assessments have so far failed to pick up – it is not revealed until the very last book of the series, VERONA AT LAST. He has a Shakespearean flaw buried deep, that took root even before his life began. It was something I was interested in because I had come to understand it had also affected me without my realising it – although not in quite the same extreme way that it affects Fenshall. It is an act of nature that has shaped his emotional life without him realising it and this makes him vulnerable.
Looking a character in the face
However, despite this, as a character, he was the hardest to actually visualise – I like to know exactly how my characters look and often see someone on the street or elsewhere and know that I have found them and that they exist.
With Edward Fenshall, although I had described him, I could not imagine his face, what he might look like, his expressions. No one I saw while out and about fitted the character I had created and I went through a whole raft of incarnations for him in my mind as I wrote.
In the final incarnation before I found him, I thought he was actually African-American, although I had described him as fair haired and blue eyed originally. I saw him as a sweet-faced, but tough little black guy, but even that did not seem to fit the character fully – and it began to bother me that perhaps Edward Fenshall as a character had no basis in reality and was just a product of my imagination which would never ring true. I knew there was something different about him, but could not put my finger on it exactly.
I began to realise that he had suddenly emerged in the hotel lobby on Via Vittorio Veneto because the US Embassy is located on the Veneto and that is where his HQ in Rome would also be located. I had not thought about this consciously, however, although the information was known to me. I frequently collect facts – and might even make the occasional note which I rarely refer to – but somehow my brain had worked out by itself exactly when Edward Fenshall should appear in the novel and I went with it, despite being surprised at the time.
Edward Fenshall arrived fully formed in my head, though, as a character, apart from his exact name and his face and an indefinable something that I could not put my finger on because it was too close to home. That was what I needed to realise before I could understand the character I had written completely.
Desperately seeking Edward Fenshall
I recall writing the moment when Dr McCarthy enters the hotel lobby with a clingy colleague and Fenshall – not as Fenshall – at first has his back to him and is talking loudly to another group of delegates, but then turns round, calls to Dr McCarthy and bears his teeth like a shark. I could see the scene quite clearly at the time in my imagination and still can – but I could not visualise Fenshall’s face exactly, although I could see clearly he had broad shoulders for his height, a largish head and was wearing a suit.
Not knowing what he looked like exactly became an increasing worry, though. I looked everywhere for him – both at home and abroad – and could find no one whom I felt looked like him facially. There were some near misses, but none had the spirit I imagined him to have – the intelligence, toughness, ruthless magnetism and shark-like quality, but also the ability to be genuinely charming, chivalrous and even seductive. It seemed like a tall order for a character. I would add that none of these is the hidden personality trait we share. I am as shark-like and seductive as a minnow.
I booked holiday to New York and hoped I might find him there, but in the end had to cancel when I fell off a pavement and sprained my ankle. It seemed like an omen and I felt that I should perhaps abandon him as a character, except that he would not stop telling me his story. When you cannot switch a character off, you have no choice but to keep writing and get them out of your head. I would wake up at night and he would still be talking, which I have also experienced with other characters. I understand other writers also experience this – I switch on the radio and this helps sometimes. Otherwise, there is no option but to make a cup of tea and start writing again.
Dr Neil McCarthy and Bee Rightson
My main character, Dr Neil McCarthy, I had seen walking along Via Vittorio Veneto once – and again dragging a suitcase at Valerio Catullo Airport in Verona, where there was a medical conference being held. Dr McCarthy came to me with my other main character Bee Rightson while I was in Rome in September 2005, staying at a hotel on Via Veneto. I was sitting on the bed in my room when Bee presented herself and Dr McCarthy followed less than an hour later. Characters come into focus much more sharply as they are written, but Dr McCarthy was very easy to write from the start and as a writer I found both him and Bee very good company as I trotted round Rome that September.
Eventually I found Dr Neil McCarthy’s precise face while sitting on the sofa at home – as a character, he is three-parts serious scientist, one-part tragedy and six-parts comedy, as he finds himself going off the rails post divorce in Rome and his life spirals into chaos.
My other main character, Bee, was also instantly easy to visualise and get to know – on the surface, she has the same problems many women have in relationships, although her story broadens out. Other characters like Noel McCarthy, Prim, Max Rightson, Mary Rightson and Jim Holden were all easy to “cast” in my mind. Even the children were clearly in focus – what they looked like and how they behaved. I also knew exactly what Pino, Moira, Gussie and the Romanian capo dei capi Diego Lazlo Dagobert looked like and were like as people, although they do not always behave as expected.
But Edward Fenshall was as visually elusive in my mind as he was when carrying out his professional duties in the novel I was writing. Maybe it was because he was often working undercover and led a shady personal life – but despite having researched his work and where he lived thoroughly, even down to the exact apartment he lived in in New York – to me he appeared to have gone AWOL.
A character in focus
However, much to my relief and joy, he did appear, again while I was sitting on my sofa at home. I knew immediately I saw his face and suddenly the character fell into place completely, because I knew he could exist and would not remain lodged in my mind without my ever being able to see him clearly. By then, I was nearing the end of ROME AGAIN, in which he first appears, but as soon as I could imagine how he looked, writing him was much, much easier.
My real interest in Edward Fenshall was how those who do not fit a certain profile society expects adapt to that and overcome it – and perhaps develop other aspects of their personality as a result. Life has thrown a lot at him and the way he overcomes that is not a perfect science. He is at times unprincipled, confrontational, risk-taking; often he only survives in his job because he has a strong mentor – and he has personal issues not even he realises until forced to face them. And he has that unseen flaw that makes him vulnerable beneath his tough exterior, without him realising it.
The question I ask myself – and he sometimes asks himself – is would his life have panned out differently had he been tall, dark and handsome like his junior agent, Karl O’Rourke? Quite unconsciously on my part, Edward often feels challenged by other men and is dismissive of their abilities, which makes this life even more difficult. But although he loves women and tries to treat them well, he is not a man in touch with his feminine side – rather, he prides himself on his masculinity and being ruthless.
The final novel – already written – VERONA AT LAST is a particular adventure for Edward Fenshall and one I personally found difficult to write. I was often disappointed in my characters’ behaviour, but it was the story they told me and which I had to write. I recall one reader accusing me of not writing “nice” stories about romance and Italy, but I do not always feel I have a say in what my characters get up to, even if I find certain stories challenging. I am not writing my story – I am writing theirs, after all. I can only try and understand why they behave as they do and tell the story as best I can.
I never thought as a small child that the image of the woman sitting alone in the post office every day would stay with me my whole life and help spawn a character in a novel, but I have often thought of her and it is the experiences writers carry with them which generate and shape stories and characters, often subconsciously.
I have concluded there is really no need for authors to get out more, as I often tell myself. Wait long enough and your characters will come to you and tell their stories – and often they are born out of aspects of the writer’s life or character, which they themselves are not conscious of, until one day they realise it, as I did.
I wouldn’t have it any other way – and even if Romeo and Juliet did get to live happily ever after in another writer’s hands, it would not be the same tale Shakespeare tells and that really would be a tragedy.
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Set off to the Eternal City for a long weekend in ROME ALONE, as unhappy housewife Bee and newly-divorced Alzheimer’s expert Dr Neil McCarthy leave from opposite ends of the country for a mini-break full of the unexpected that will change their lives forever as they make their way round the sites. Return to Rome with them three years later in ROME AGAIN and discover the forces at work which they never suspected on their first trip.
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In VERONA ALONE, newly divorced former cellist Moira decides to fulfil a girlhood dream of visiting Verona during the summer opera season. There she is taken under the wing of a quirky and generous American who appears to have a secret, which is only discovered when she finds herself all at sea with him. VERONA AGAIN sees three couples fight to save their relations – who will succeed, who will fail and who will lose the love of their life?
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