It’s a question fiction writers often get asked: ‘Where do your characters come from?’ There are two expected answers – one, that they’re all bits of myself; the other, that they’re taken from real life, from people around me.
Both of those answers will occasionally have some truth in them. You can’t write without putting yourself into your work at some point, and certainly some characters will have quite a lot of yourself in them.
As for using other people as models, I suspect that’s much less common. The nearest I’ve come to it is in borrowing a mannerism or a tiny physical feature I’ve spotted in someone I’ve met, but even that I’ve only done very rarely.
No, like most writers, my characters emerge at a very early stage of planning a novel and very quickly develop a separate and distinct life of their own, even before I’ve written one word of the book. More than that, they can develop such a distinct and active life that they start affecting the action of the book, so that it requires a firm hand to keep them under control. Yet that independent life is essential to shaping a book and giving it a beating heart. Without it, the book would never be written.
I approached the writing of ‘The Last Ballad’ in a rather more rational way than usual. I decided I was going to write a novel set in Weardale, the Durham dale on whose edge I lived at the time. I used as my starting point the ‘Ballad of the Bonny Moor Hen’, a Weardale folk song written to celebrate the victory in 1818 of a group of poaching leadminers over the legal representatives of the chief landowner in the dale, the Bishopric of Durham. The original incident appears in nearly all the guide books and amateur history books about the dale. The story goes that as the arrested poachers were led away from St John’s Chapel under guard, the cavalcade was set upon (in a pub in Stanhope), there was a savage fight and the poachers were set free. What was more, the men involved in this fracas were never brought to justice.
I didn’t believe it, or not that last bit anyway. This was a time, following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when there was a good deal of unrest in the country at large, and a tendency to overreact on the part of the authorities, who feared a bloody revolution in this country too.
So, a good deal of the fun in preparing to write this book was finding out from the official records what exactly did happen. Hours in local archives, reading old newspapers and other documents, and more hours still scouring state papers in the public record office at Kew, gave me the answer – and it was rather different from the cheery account in that celebratory ballad.
So, I found my characters at the heart of that story and worked out a rough outline of the novel. I knew how it was to begin, roughly what was to happen as the story unfolded and how it was to end. My publishers offered a contract on that basis. I began work.
I wrote the first chapter, introducing the main characters – Jenny the heroine, mourning the recent death of her leadminer lover, and facing the imminent death of her father; her brother Joe, ready to go poaching when the pot needed filling; younger brother Tommy, just starting work in the lead mines; and Edward, the Church of England curate, coming into the dale for the first time and not much liking what he found. He was to fall in love with Jenny, and she with him.
There they all were, lined up and ready to go. On to Chapter Two…
But nothing happened. I knew what was supposed to happen in Chapter Two, but not a word of it could I write. I was stuck, completely stuck – and baffled.
Then I realised what was wrong, what was holding me up: I’d left someone out of Chapter One, someone I didn’t even know existed until then. That someone was Rowland, the notorious sinner returning to the dale with the fire of conversion in his belly, eager to preach to a deeply suspicious population. Not until I went back to Chapter One and brought him in could I get on with the book – which then became a rather different story from the one I’d originally planned.
So, where did Rowland come from? I don’t know. There was certainly nothing of me in him. I’m a lifelong Anglican, of the sceptical liberal kind, with that very Anglican embarrassment at any overt enthusiasm about religion, and especially the idea that you have to be converted in one climactic moment to be saved.
Yet it was people like Rowland, fired with just that kind of enthusiasm, who – from John Wesley onwards – played a part in transforming Weardale from a heavy-drinking, lawless outpost to a place where a passionate Methodism was central to a very large proportion of its population, shaping and guiding their lives. It had to be a part of the story.