Where do my fictional characters come from?

I’m often asked where I get my characters from – how I decide on their names and are they based on real people. I also get asked ‘Am I in your novel?’ and the answer to that is always ‘No!’ – or at least ‘Not so that you’d recognise yourself!’ Not surprisingly for an author, I’m a people watcher. I love train stations, airports and waiting rooms where I can sit quietly and observe. I’m also a shameless eavesdropper, and I’m always astonished at the things that people are perfectly happy to discuss in places where it’s obvious they can be overheard. Hairdressing salons are another great place to watch and listen. People tell their hairdressers almost anything – it’s like a confessional! I don’t base my characters on people I know, but sometimes strangers that I come across will spark the idea for a particular character. It could be their appearance, their voice or perhaps one specific characteristic. I keep a notebook (yes, I know – I keep notebooks for everything!) for ideas for characters, regardless of whether or not they will fit into the book I’m currently working on. Earlier this week I had to take my mum for a hospital appointment and while we were in the waiting room I noticed that a very beautiful elderly lady dressed in dark velvet and turquoise sequinned sandals kept staring at me and whispering to herself. Eventually, she came and sat next me and, stoking the sleeve of my jacket, she whispered ‘Princess. You are a princess.’ I should explain that the jacket I was wearing has a good deal of gold braiding and silver studs on the sleeves ( in fact, at The Stratford Literary Festival last month, it was much admired by Paddy Ashdown in the green room!) When the lady left the waiting room, she said to me, ‘Goodbye, princess from London. Take care.’ It made my day, and she made it into my notebook. On another occasion, I was in my dentist’s waiting room and a very dapper gentleman came in and spoke to the receptionist. There had been a mix-up with his appointment time, and she offered him a later slot. I’ll remember his reply forever. ‘I’m terribly sorry – I can’t do that. I’ve a plane waiting to take me to the Bahamas.’ He wasn’t joking. Another one for my notebook! I also use photograph books and photos for inspiration, and when my friend Peter, who owns the Eagle Bookshop in Bedford, acquired a huge collection of press photos I was in heaven! Cemeteries are my go-to place for names – so much more interesting than baby name books or websites. And finally, what about that old chestnut about writers getting their revenge on people who’ve upset them by including them as villains in their books? Is it true? Now that would be telling…

 

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