"Yes, but do you love your characters?'
It was my mother asking the question, over breakfast . I’d returned home for a weekend, just before my first book came out. I’m not very sharp at answering direct questions over breakfast, so I think I mumbled something into my boiled egg about “I mean I like some of them, if that’s what you mean…”
But I don’t think it was.
Now my second novel has just come out, and I’m starting a third, her question has made me reflect on a broader point about writing.
Of course I love my characters. It would be much harder to write if I didn’t. I love the heroes, I love the villains. I love the characters that are a pleasure to write, the characters that take more work. I even love the characters that ultimately don’t quite cut it on the published page and the total failures lying lifeless and rejected in my draft folder.
The reason I have to is that, whilst I’ve brought in elements of observation from remembered encounters with real life characters, friends and strangers, real and fictional, every character I write is – in the end – only as revealing or engaging to a reader as I can make them. They are all, ultimately, nebulous and circulating thoughts deep in my subconscious given bones and clothes made of type.
So if I don’t love them, I don’t love my work. And whilst I’m sure this view will change and evolve the more I write, I’m find myself more and more convinced that loving your work – is the only true motivator to sitting down in front of the screen each day. Especially when you’re under pressure. Or not feeling remotely inspired. Or hungover.
And by that, I don’t mean a narcissistic self-absorption – although of course, a degree of that is almost impossible to avoid when you sit alone in front of a computer for hours with only Twitter and your thoughts for company. I am also trying to avoid queasy self-help territory.
What I mean is that I’m learning to authentically love my work for itself, and not because of its subjective value for others. Love it when it's easy, love it when you think you will never ever finish writing this book.
I want my books to be published and read. I want readers to enjoy them and critics to acclaim them. I want the ideas in them to provoke debate. Staying in print, on library shelves, hopefully inspiring or entertaining lots of young readers – of course those things matter deeply.
But I've realized that ultimately I need to love my characters - the work of creating them - as writing is the means to an end, that goes beyond all that.
Continued publication in some form permits me – just - a daily existence where I have the freedom and time to work out what I think about the world. To read and read till the shelves collapse. To go for a walk in the park when I want. To occasionally, just very occasionally, entirely escape from this world and lose myself completely in a fictional one of my own making.
So yes, Mum – I do love my characters. Because they allow me to do all that.