Thursday 12 December 2013

Meet my main character

When you have published over 120 books as I have -- most of which are novels for young readers -- you have made the acquaintance of many protagonists over the years. Most of my main characters are based on or composites of real life people I’m acquainted with, including myself. I’m sure most authors incorporate their own experiences and emotions in their book characters, even when they are writing fantasy, sci fi or horror. The main genre of my novels (and the type of novel I most prefer to read) is social realism.

When I am about to start writing a new novel, I spend much time thinking and writing notes about characters and storyline. But first and foremost for me is character. It is a character with a problem or in a particular situation who decides the direction of the plot. Characters I’ve employed are Libby Bramble in my latest cross-over novel The Girl in the Basement (Morris Publishing Australia), a typical cheerful, enterprising girl who is kidnapped on the night of her sixteenth birthday by a serial killer. The story follows her capture, her captivity and her developing relationship with the man she calls Psycho Man from whom she attempts to escape.

In my latest (unpublished) book, an adult novel, The Freshest of Flesh, there are two protagonists who narrate their stories in alternating chapters: Dovey, a woman serial killer who hunts paedophiles, and Ray, recently released from prison who is battling his sexual proclivity for young girls. I really enjoyed writing this book but when I had it assessed recently by a freelance editor, I was appalled by her unfavourable reaction to it (mostly because of my portrayal of the paedophile whose thoughts she felt were too unsavoury for a general readership). So much for realism! Notwithstanding numerous pages of critical comment, I will re-write the book, taking the editor’s comments into consideration. Incidentally, over the past 30+ years I’ve been writing I still attend a weekly writing critique group which I find essential for improving my stories and for keeping me motivated -- highly recommended, especially for new writers.

My first novel, Terri, published in 1980 by Penguin, had as its main character a ten-year-old girl I met when I lived on a mountain in southern NSW, Australia. What most intrigued me about ‘Terri’ was her lifestyle. Her parents were divorced so she was shared between them, living for six months of the year with her mother in Melbourne and the other half of the year with her father, a well known stage and film actor who adopted a hippy lifestyle when Terri went to live with him on Dr George Mountain where I was his neighbour. I didn’t know all of the details of Terri’s story so I invented a story that fitted into her life scenario.

The main character of my second book Piggy Moss (Puffin), was based on my own experiences as a child living on a pig and poultry farm. I had always suspected there was a family secret and this was confirmed when my parents announced when I was ten that I had a half-brother, Jack, who was coming from England to live with us. Voila, I had a story I just needed to follow.

The only fantasy novel I’ve authored was my third book, The Belligrumble Bigfoot (Kangaroo Books) which followed the story of a mythical creature said to inhabit an outback town. The protagonist of this book was pure invention, a neurotic boy, Willie Macbeth, who has a powerful imagination that allows him to escape into fantasy when there are sightings of the creator. Willie mentally transforms himself into powerful characters who battle with and overcome the bigfoot.

One of the most difficult books I’ve written – and which won a Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Notable award – was The Shape (Allen and Unwin). This book was deeply personal for me and took a long time to write as it was based on the death of my second child, Kathleen Julia, at the age of two. Years after Kathleen’s death, her sister Claire told me that for a long time afterwards, she would lie awake at night looking at a shadow on her bedroom wall; she believed it was this ‘shape’ which was responsible for killing Kathleen – that it had ‘eaten’ her. Claire was four at the time of her sister’s death; she never told me about the shadow until she was a teenager. I felt so sad for her and wished she had told me at the time so that I could have explained death to her more clearly than I obviously had.

More recently my first verse novel, Nobody’s Boy (Celapene Press), also won a CBCA Notable Award. This book is based on the character and story of Paul, a nine-year-old boy whom my husband (award-winning YA author Bill Condon) and I fostered for three years. The story is faithful to Paul’s experiences, including how at the age of six he saved the life of his mother, a drug addict, and the life he led until and including the time he came to Bill’s and my life. Paul, now aged 22 years and a father, thought the book ‘amazing’.

My next book, a junior novel, A Game of Keeps (Celapene Press), due out mid-2014, is loosely based on a child Bill and I fostered for some years. Her drug- addicted mother often left Ashley alone for long periods; like Paul, she was a resourceful, cheerful child whom we loved. Happily, Ashley’s mother was able to overcome her addiction and presented Ashley with a baby brother whom she came to love, though at first being resistant to the idea of a sibling.

There have, of course, been many other protagonists in my books that I could write about, but hopefully I’ve been able to present a general idea of where my characters come from. One of the saddest things about finishing a book is closing the chapter on a book’s protagonist whom I’ve come to identify and care about so much. But then there is the next book to develop and a new protagonist to create and to ‘live’ with until the words The End are written.

 © Dianne Bates

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