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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Howard Jacobson on... creating characters

Updated Friday, 2nd February 2007
Howard Jacobson explains why your strongest inspiration for character is probably wearing your trousers, in this exclusive extended interview for Writing Lab.


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The detail of a character is interesting to you because of your feeling for that detail. You laugh, or you feel sorry. The business of just catching people on the hoof is not what I’m really very interested in. There are some novelists who want to catch you, you know, want to give you the whole, you know, "here is the variety of human life, look at them all". I’m not really interested in that. I’m not sure actually how many novelists are interested in that. You are interested in your feelings for a character, how you personalise them, because in the end the novel is more personal than we probably ever like to acknowledge.

It’s all coming out of our self, and before the character is a character, it has to pass through the machinery of you, so that the character becomes "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", but the character becomes only a living character to you once you can find something of yourself in that character, or once you feel that that character represents something about you.

This is not egoism or solipsism, it’s actually writerly magnanimity. You feel generous towards yourself, and you’ll feel more generous towards a character if you feel that that character contains something of yourself, some possibility for yourself. So the actual unusual eccentricities of people are not what I collect, I like the fondnesses that I feel for people.

I found, on a train, an important character in my latest novel, Kalooki Nights. I thought I knew who this person was. It was based partly upon somebody that I knew but I hadn’t seen for forty years, so I was happy to invent on what I’d remembered. And to just go on inventing, because you always feel you have a good memory bank, you can’t write unless you have a good memory bank. But, I saw on a train, mannerisms, and mannerisms of introversion, which gave me the character that I needed. How locked away this person seemed, and how locked away the character I was writing about, must have been to have done the terrible things that I was making him do. So just seeing somebody move his hands or move his mouth in a particular way, on a train, took me, I hope, to a psychological understanding of who that person was.

I have to see a character before I can write them. I have to see them physically. If I can see them physically, it helps in the "hearing" of them. I like my characters to talk a lot. I do like, I like writing about people in conversation. And I have to see what they would be doing in conversation. I’m not convinced by the conversation. I can’t just do he said, she said, he said, she said, I can’t do it. They have to say with a particular expression on their face. They have to do something with their body or their hands. And if I can’t see that movement, I actually do it myself. So I can’t say "she wrung her hands" without thinking "well hang on, do people wring their hands, what does it look like?" And so I will practice wringing my hands. Or sometimes I will look at something in a mirror, or I will sit at my desk and actually do it physically.

I actually have to, I don’t know what it is that I’m honouring. I’m not honouring anything that I particularly seen in the character. It’s not mimicry. I’m absolutely not a mimic. I’m not interested in mimicry. But I just want to feel that a person would do that. And that, while imagining them doing that helps you to see them, and that your seeing them helps you to know who they are and therefore gives force to whatever it is that they’re saying; and what, therefore, is going on inside, because we all know that what we do with our body has got something telling to say about what we’re actually thinking.

So if, as a novelist, you can give a character gestures and movements, you are perhaps belying what it is that they think they’re saying because everything is in tension. What a person says is not necessarily what they feel or what they want to say. And I love all that whole business about things betraying, so that the action might tell you something other than what the person is actually saying or what the person is actually thinking.

Geography’s interesting. I think my topography is always psychological. I need to know, I obsessively need to know where the character comes from familially, so to speak. I always want to - and I have to stop myself - I always want to give my characters a mother and a father. And if you give every character a mother and a father, you’re never going to get to the end of the novel. And I have to take out endless characterisations of my characters' mothers and fathers. I actually can’t understand anything about a person without thinking about their mother and their father.

I am inclined sometimes to want to give them my mother and my father. I am inclined sometimes to want to make everybody come from Manchester, from north Manchester (specifically from my street, if you want to know) and give them my mother and father, because I feel there’s so much, so many things that I can only understand about myself, and I write about myself a bit in my novels, by thinking about where I come from, what the street was, what my mother and father were, what the particularities of origin were that I sometimes wonder whether I know anything about another person at all unless I know the street they came from, but particularly their mother and their father, the psychology of it. I’m always interested when people talk about characters that the assumption is that the novelist mimics characters voices and therefore the characters must sound nothing like the novelists. And when they do sound like the novelist, that’s a problem.

I think characters always sound like the person who created them. So someone can read to you from a DH Lawrence novel and you know those are DH Lawrence characters. Not DH Lawrence speaking, there could be women, they could be nothing like Lawrence, but they are DH Lawrence characters speaking. You know it in Henry James. It’s their world. The novelist peoples his novel with characters who belong to his world so that it is distinct.

So, for example, you can’t say that, it wasn’t because Christopher Marlowe never met Hamlet that he never wrote about Hamlet, it was just not within the compass of his mind to imagine a Hamlet. Which makes me feel that there’s a general thing to say about characters, which is in the end, no matter where you find from, and no matter how closely you are looking, or no matter how interestingly you’re observing, in the end a character will originate in the seedbed which is your own mind, your imagination.

The characters who give me most trouble are the characters most like myself. And that’s to say the male hero because I mainly do have male heroes. And the reason they give you so much trouble is because there is something you’re needing to honour that’s not to do with just what you’re creating in your mind or on your desk in that hour. A minor character comes and goes and you owe no-one anything, he’s yours. You’re not trying to live up to something that you’ve seen, even though you may have seen something interesting.

When you’re writing about yourself, there is the tumult of you that you have to do justice to, and that you will feel you’ve failed it if you’re too easy on yourself, if you’re too hard on yourself, if you’re too kind, if you’re too funny about yourself or solemn about yourself. So to get the balance of feelings towards yourself and you too are a character in a novel if your novel’s any good. You, too, are a character, you’re not just the voice, you are the character. So you are fretting all the time about whether you’re doing justice to yourself. The character you know best is the hardest character to write.

Funny about naming characters, I get very disappointed when I open a novel and I see people called John and Mary, I don’t want to go on with that really. I love Dickens characters' naming - and then I get fed up of it after a while. Ordinary names in Jane Austin don’t bother me, I don’t know why that is. I struggle with this all the time. I don’t want to sound too like Dickens but I can’t just give somebody a plain name. I have to give them a name that’s redolent of something.

So my first hero I called Sefton Goldberg. Forget the Goldberg if that’s not necessary. But the Sefton was a triumph I thought for me because it caught somebody who felt soft about himself. It caught somebody who didn’t have enough confidence. It was interesting because it won from readers a sympathy I’m not sure he deserved. A lot of people wrote and talked about poor Sefton. I don’t think they really felt poor Sefton because of Sefton’s character, I think they felt poor Sefton because of his name. So a name is a very charged thing.

I wrote about some academic women, not long ago, and I gave them names like Mona Khartoum, Serese Greenspan, Rona Delahunty, which were partly names that I’d picked up from the academic world. But they just have an atmosphere. You can hear, I want you to hear, problematic academic women. And those are not names you could give to courtesans or models. So there is a joy in catching a name which is not too preposterous but just evokes the world in which these people inhabit. It’s one of the pleasures of writing, inventing names.

I invented a character once called Sheeny Waxman, which was very dodgy because it almost sounds... if you weren’t a Jewish writer, I don’t think you could do that. But I loved Sheeny Waxman. I still, if I open that book to read it and see Sheeny Waxman, I’m suffused with immense pleasure because you just feel, you can see, you know, you could draw me a picture of Sheeny Waxman now. You might be frightened to show me the picture, but you could draw it.

I think one thing to avoid with character is the idea that you can go out and find it. There is an assumption that if you overhear people, on a bus or a train, and repeat what they say, you will have the real feel of life. You won’t. If you write what you’ve overheard, it will sound like something that you’ve overheard. It has to go; it has to pass through you first. It has to have the permission. A character has to have the permission of your soul before it becomes a character. A character isn ’t vivid by virtue of your having seen a vivid person in life. Nothing lives, nothing in a novel lives, neither character nor story nor anything else until it is written. By which I mean until it has become yours.

No character is a picture of a real one. You couldn’t write if you haven’t lived in a real non-fictional world but your characters, once you’ve made them, are yours, accountable to nobody but you.


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