Ian McMillan: Why writing can be character-building

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As a writer, I find the hardest thing to do is create characters who aren’t like me. Of course when I’m writing this column or writing poems then I can be the protagonist because, well, that’s what people expect, although of course the ‘I’ in the poem doesn’t necessarily have to be the poet themselves.

When I’m writing fiction or drama, though, I struggle to create paper people who then go on to become real people and who aren’t versions of grey-haired middle-aged Yorkshiremen who like a nice cup of tea. Even the women characters tend to be, if you look really hard, grey-haired middle-aged Yorkshiremen who like a nice cup of tea.

Years ago, with my mates Dave Sheasby and Martyn Wiley, I wrote a radio comedy called The Blackburn Files about an ex-miner who became a private detective. The three series, which often get repeated on Radio 4 Extra, starred the wonderfully-named Finetime Fontayne as the detective Stephen J Blackburn and his mam was played by Sheffield actress Rita May. Sheasby kept pointing out that Mam sounded just like Stephen, who in turn sounded just like us, and that we had to really try give her different rhythms, different catchphrases, different cadences. We did our best but when I catch the repeats on the radio I often think that sometimes we didn’t succeed, and all the characters, even the women, sound like three blokes in a room talking. Three blokes called Martyn, Dave and Ian.

I’m envious of novelists who, over a long career, can create people who are nothing like them. I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes and I’m envious of the way that they can make characters from scratch and, even more amazingly, how in each novel they can write characters who are nothing like anybody else they’ve written about.

I’m not sure how to write like them but I once heard a simple formula that’s a good way in to creating new people when you’re attempting to write fiction: Give a character a name, an age, a hobby and a secret.

So, let’s think of a name: Marjorie. Marjorie Glenn. Okay, that’s a good name, and apart from a few shared letters it’s nothing like mine. Let’s give her an age. I’m 61, so let’s go up a bit. Marjorie can be 92. An elderly woman, but not necessarily housebound or infirm.

Marjorie Glenn, aged 92. What could her hobby be? The obvious cliché would be knitting but the thing about real people is that they’re not often obvious, so let’s give her something a bit off-centre. She’s learning the cello. That’s good. And her secret? She turned down an OBE for her community work in 1987. And nobody knows.

Marjorie Glenn: I feel I know her, somehow. Now let’s see if I can write her into a story. I wonder why she took up the cello…?