Real life characters are madder than any you might invent

Books of charactersPhil: A book needs characters. Well, a work of fiction does anyway. As humans, we tend to be interested in other humans. This is why local news is full of “human interest” stories and they prefer reporting the opinions of random people to something than bothering to find out boring old facts. Generally these people are the sort of people hanging around the streets during the day and willing to talk into a camera but that doesn’t matter, we like to know about others. It’s genetics apparently. Genetics I must have missed out on as I normally want to punch them rather than listen to their opinions, but that’s just me.

Anyway, a book must have characters and so as authors, we are required to invent them. I explained the background to Andrew, a major playing in Kate vs The Dirtboffins, last year. Basically, you take memories of all the people you know, mix them up in a mental cocktail shaker and pour out a fictional figure who will perform the role your story demands. The worry is that you’ll create a cartoon rather than a believable flesh-and-blood person. Sometime you, or at least I, think that no-one could be as weird as all that.

Worry no more.

I’ve just read a couple of books full to the brim with characters wackier than anything that came out of my head.

Boris Johnson’s excellent “Life of London” describes the people who made Great Britain’s capital city. He uses a long list of characters to chart the history of the city from Roman times (Boudica – All torture and badness) through Richard Whittington (Didn’t have a cat. Was mayor)  and Lionel Rothschild (got a few quid) to Winston Churchill (Cigar, V-sign etc.) and Keef Richard (Managed to get quite a lot of satisfaction). What’s fascinating is that the greater the character, the madder they seem to be. Most of them have lives that read an awful lot like fiction.

Mary Seacole for example, may have been a pioneering nurse and contemporary of Florence Nightingale, but she was described as plump but pretty with a sweet and honest expression. She ran hospitals in the Crimea, went prospecting for gold, roasted and ate iguanas. Her trip to the Crimea was self-funded as she wasn’t included in Nightingales 38 party of nurses. In later years, there is a suggestion that she might have unfairly dropped out of history for both her colour and the opinions of her more famous counterpart.

Turning to the less scholarly-titled “The Worlds Greatest Cranks and Crackpots“, which despite Candice’s suggest, does not feature me, I was particularly taken by Mary Wilcocks. For many years, the Devon-born girl fooled the town of Almondsbury into believing she was shipwrecked oriental royalty named Princess Caraboo. When the hoax was revealed, the girl was packed off by her hosts for America. Life there didn’t seem to work out and she returned to England, possibly via St Helena to visit Napoleon, and was eventually spotted selling leeches in London.

That, is a life well lived and a character that you would struggle to invent.

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