Where Do Characters Come From?

I was six years old and scared. The city was being bombed nightly, and I’d been taken down into a damp cellar and told to go to sleep in a bunk bed. My 4 year old sister was to sleep in the bunk above me, and the twins were already asleep opposite. It was wartime and when darkness came, so would the bombers, night after night after night. Upstairs the windows were criss-crossed with tape and fitted with blackout. I lay rigid in the bunk, praying a bit, trying not to flinch as each ‘Kerrump!’ heralded another bomb dropping nearby.
I gripped a book which had been bought for me only that day; the first book that I can remember being bought for me alone. And a torch. I wasn’t supposed to read by torchlight, but after a while I switched it on, opened the book and forgot about the bombs as I read the story of Cinderella.
Many years later when I needed a theme for a series, I sketched out a storyline which involved a poverty-to-riches story, a birth mother who died young, and a hero who hid his wealth in order to win the heroine on his own merits. There was also to be a great house filled with beautiful things, a sister who behaved badly towards the heroine, and a father who’d rejected his daughter. When I started the story, I thought I was writing about forgiveness and self-worth, but my editor pointed out that I was really writing Cinderella. There was also an evil step-mother…but hey! She comes out of another story, doesn’t she?
So how come I’d not recognised the fact that I was using the elements of a fairy story, brought up to date? One answer is people don’t change through the centuries, although ethics do. For instance, fairy stories echoed the life of the times in which they were first conceived; many more women then died in childbirth and the fathers would marry again and produce a second family. Is there a parallel here with divorce and second marriages nowadays? In both cases the second wife would naturally favour her own children.
Arranged marriages in those days preserved the viability of large estates, but now and again an heir would marry beauty and goodness, rather than money. You can see this happening in Jane Austen, and even in Bridget Jones.
Another answer to why I’d missed the connection with fairy stories is that I’d grown up and lost sight of childish things – or thought I had. But early influences tend to go underground and pop up in the strangest places.
Take the story of Robin Hood, for instance. I was given the Adventures of Robin Hood about the same time as the book about Cinderella. Of course I was captivated. A sunlit forest, brave men righting wrongs, a beautiful maiden in distress. Well, yes. But the stories actually set me thinking about the subsidiary characters more than about Robin Hood himself.
How was it that Robin Hood could defeat Little John in a fight? Wasn’t Little John the bigger and stronger of the two? I couldn’t quite get my head around that. Friar Tuck, too; what an oddity. But the one I dreamed about most was Will Scarlet, who took his music into the forest with him. The backgrounds of each of these men were only lightly sketched in though the illustrations helped. What I really wanted was a book about each of these minor characters. Perhaps it was this desire to know more about them which started me making up my own stories in my head?
Being sent away to boarding school at six also helped, because it drove me in on myself. Imagination works on what you’ve come across yourself, and so I recalled everything I’d read and launched out from there.
A picture from a magazine of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in a wonderful dress of red sequins fading down to white…a strip cartoon of Rip Kirby, strong-jawed and invincible, with a beautiful blonde girl-friend…and a fascinating opponent called Pagan, whose evil intentions were always undermined by her attraction to the hero. I was never particularly interested in the blonde – I’m a brunette, by the way – but Pagan fascinated me. And perhaps that was what started me thinking that flawed but interesting secondary characters can add so much to the story.
Have I re-used some of these characters in my own stories? Y-yes, with a twist here and there I’ve made use of characters from the Cinderella story and Snow White, of Friar Tuck and Pagan but not yet of Will Scarlet. So perhaps he’ll come into my next book…
First published in Mystery Readers Journal