I find myself returning to favourite books I’ve read – sometimes often – and which I therefore know very well. It’s not that I want to relive the story necessarily, although that might be part of it. No, the main reason is that I want to spend time with the characters. I want to renew old acquaintances, to enjoy their company once again. I want to row serenely down the Thames with J and Harris and George in that timeless classic, Three Men in a Boat. I want to laugh at the old jokes and situations, follow Harris around the Hampton Court maze as he leads a gaggle of bewildered day-trippers round and round, always ending up at the centre. I want to hitch a ride with Paxton and O’Neill in their flimsy WWI aeroplane in Derek Robinson’s brilliant air drama, War Story. I enjoy meeting up from time to time with my friend Gustad Noble, as he performs his early morning kusti in the Khodadad building’s compound; Gustad is one of my favourites – he’s absolutely real to me. So all credit and much kudos to the brilliant Rohinton Mistry for introducing me to Gustad, even though time and considerable distance (plus the fact that Gustad never really existed) will always separate me from the Noble family.
This last novel, Such a Long Journey, is for me a definitive work of characterisation. I feel such empathy with Gustad and his many difficulties. With each turn of the page I experience more of the heat and tense atmosphere of this fictional but true-to-life nineteen-seventies India, as it struggles to survive under the crushing weight of Indira Gandhi’s turbulent rule. I love Gustad for his indomitable spirit. He doesn’t get everything right – indeed much of the time he gets it very wrong. But that’s life, isn’t it? I love his flaws, not just his better side. He’s a good guy to spend time with.
So when I’m writing, I try to be mindful of this. Good characters are complex, contrary, sometime unpredictable, always fascinating. Even the minor roles should be memorable. My protagonist, DCI Brendan Moran, is a very interesting guy. His background is unusual and nothing in his life is particularly straightforward. Moran’s colleagues also struggle with various burdens and difficulties – but it’s how they deal with these which makes for an absorbing and page-turning read. Like Gustad Noble, I may not always get it right, but that’s what I’m aiming for when I’m putting a novel together.
Well-drawn characters are a mirror to our own souls. In their daily struggles we see possible versions of ourselves, and thereby find answers to the problems and difficulties each of us face in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.