Podcast: How to Develop Compelling Characters in Your Fiction with Okechukwu Nzelu
In this episode of The Writing Life, Okechukwu Nzula discusses the many aspects of developing compelling characters.

For this episode, we speak with writer and teacher Okechukwu Nzelu to discuss the greatest pillar of creative writing – how to develop your characters.

Okechukwu discusses many aspects of character development, including those in his latest novel Here Again Now. Okechukwu Nzelu was the recipient of a Northern Writers’ Award from New Writing North in 2015 and his debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, won a Betty Trask Award. It was also shortlisted for our very own Desmond Elliott Prize. In 2021, it was selected for the Kingston University Big Read. He is also a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

In this episode, Okechukwu helps us understand how we can write compelling characters.

 

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Transcript

STEPH

Welcome to The Writing Life, the podcast for anyone who writes. I’m Steph McKenna.

 

GILL

And I’m James Gill.

 

STEPH

From the National Centre for Writing here at Dragon Hall in Norwich.

 

GILL

For this episode I spoke to writer and teacher Okechukwu Nzelu. Why? To discuss the greatest pillar of creative writing, character.

 

STEPH

Gill and Okechukwu discussed many aspects of character development, touching on techniques he used to develop the characters in his latest novel, Here Again Now. Based in Manchester, Okechukwu was the recipient of a Northern Writers’ Award from the New Writing North in 2015. His debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, which is a brilliant book, I have to say – won a Betty Trask Award. It was also shortlisted for our very own Desmond Elliott Prize, among others. In 2021, it was selected for the Kingston University Big Read.

 

GILL

His second novel, Here Again Now, of which I read about the first hundred pages before I got to speak to him, was published by Dialogue Books in March 2022. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Lancaster University, so he is perfectly positioned to help us understand how we can write compelling characters.

 

STEPH

Speaking about learning the craft of creative writing, before we head into this conversation, I will just say that we have a range of fantastic courses and workshops available for beginners and intermediate writers in genres from poetry to screenwriting, non-fiction to crime. Head to the website to find out more.

 

GILL

And now, without further delay, we bring you Okechukwu Nzelu.

Welcome Okuchuku, thank you so much for coming on. In preparation for our chat, I read the beginning of Here Again Now, your most recent novel, as well as watching you in conversation about your writing. You came highly recommended to us as someone to talk to about character, and having done that research I can now see that that was a fantastic recommendation. Would it be fair to say that you’re obsessed with character?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think that would be very fair to say. I think for me, every writer will probably have a different starting point for their narratives, and some people start with a setting, some people start with an exciting incident or whatever it might be. And for me, I do start with characters and specifically the dynamics between characters. I find that there’s a really interesting colouring in phase, where you have that initial idea, where you think of a relationship between characters. In fact, I’m doing that now with my third novel. You have this initial idea of a relationship between characters, and then you think, OK, what characters, what kind of people might be involved in that relationship, and where might that take those people. It’s a really fun process of filling in the blanks, I really like it.

 

GILL

And so, what is, you know, there are obviously many types of stories, and you’ve mentioned a few there, and I do like my sort of sci-fi and fantasy, so a lot of that is very setting based, or the ‘what if,’ what if we were in space, what if something wiped out all humanity, etc. So, I enjoy the what ifs, but what is the role, or roles, of characters in a story, at the most basic level, what is the role of a character in any story?

 

OKECHUKWU

That’s a good question, because I think it so depends, doesn’t it, on what the story is doing. You know, you might have what we call character driven fiction,

in which the point of the character is to drive the narrative. And often in character driven fiction, maybe not a lot of stuff happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very engaging story, because what we get from the story, even if ‘not a lot happens’, we’re still getting engagement with the people in the story, who we feel like we’re getting to know, or circling around in some way, and that can be really great. But then sometimes, you know, if it’s a plot driven story, we don’t necessarily have that same level of engagement, and there are all sorts of hybrids and things in between. So yeah, that’s really interesting. I’m not sure I can nail down one thing that a character does, but I think perhaps one thing would be, we rely on characters to make us care about what’s going on, no matter how plot driven the story is. And again, that’s always going to be in a slightly artificial distinction. I would say that if we don’t care about the characters, we’re not going to care about the plot.

 

GILL

Yeah, and I think actually a perfect example of that was, I had an idea. I wrote like a, I’m a hobby writer, so I’m an interested non-expert, and I wrote a story, and I had an idea for writing a fake non-fiction book about a period in time when basically all the men die, and England sort of descends into totalitarianism, but it was sort of fake non-fiction.

But because it was fake non-fiction, it was basically a 40,000-word news story with no characters. And so to answer the question, what do you get if you don’t have characters? The answer is, you don’t have anything. It’s just a series of events. And so particularly to your point there, it’s like characters is what makes us care, and that’s really what my giant press release book idea lacked, it lacked characters, and so no one cared, you know, the couple of people who read or could bear the first 10 pages. And so, I thought that was interesting because while I’m someone who thinks, yes, I like my science fiction, the what if, reading about Achike and Ekine, I just kind of fell in love with them both as well in the pages that I was reading.

And it wasn’t set in space, and they weren’t aliens, at least I haven’t finished it, so maybe TBC.

 

OKECHUKWU

Well, you never know.

 

GILL

You never know. So, I was interested, again, maybe to expand on that idea of where those characters start to grow from, and that they carry the story on their back, the plot on their back.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah. And just to quickly go back to your sort of non-fiction idea, what I find so interesting about non-fiction is that often it does follow characters. You know, if you are reading, I don’t know, even someone’s memoirs, you might see people pop up again and again because I think that’s something that the human brain naturally likes to do and to read and to receive, and I really don’t ever want to be prescriptive and say, you know, fiction must always do this or non-fiction must always do that because I don’t think that’s true. But I think there are maybe some natural tendencies towards character that I find really interesting.

And in my novel, in Here Again Now, again, it kind of goes back to that filling out process I was sort of mentioning earlier, you know, that in fact Here Again Now was loosely based on the Book of Ruth from the Old Testament.

So, I found – for anybody who’s not familiar with this story, the Book of Ruth to really quickly sum it up is about a woman who finds herself with no marital, no traditional familial ties to her own mother-in-law, Naomi, and the story is about a woman who–about these two women who are technically not family, in inverted commas anymore, but who form a very important or very close bond that nourishes and saves them both.

And so I thought, what might that be like if I rewrote that with black men involved and two of them queer?

And yeah, then it became this kind of process of what kind of characters would they be? What does it mean to form that kind of relationship? Who might need that relationship? Who might struggle with it? And what do the characters do to the story? But also, what does the story do to the characters? You know, where does it take them and where do they find themselves by the end? And I just love that because it means that you spend ages, you know, researching the story of Ruth and of course, you know, you’re going to find a lot of things that you didn’t know about Ruth. And so I thought, well, I’m going to write a book about Ruth. And I’m going to write a book about Ruth. What kind of characters form these relationships? And what I found so interesting, I suppose, in Ruth is that we have this… My starting point was that Ruth’s first big conversation with Naomi is where she talks about… is where she begs not to be sent away. Naomi says, “Now is the time, traditionally, for you to go back to your parents, back to your family.” And Ruth says, “Please don’t send me away. Where you go, I will go, and your God will be my God.” I find that so fascinating. And I wondered if there was an element of need there that isn’t expressed elsewhere in the action. We never know why Ruth asks to stay because Ruth’s sister-in-law, Orpah, she goes. She does the traditional thing, and then we never see or hear from her again. Ruth begs to be allowed to stay, and we’re never told why. But I just thought from that really interesting bit of language that Ruth… maybe there was some reason why Ruth – not didn’t want to go back but was desperate to stay with this woman who she’d only just got to know.

I just find that absolutely fascinating. And, you know, as the story goes on, the two of them, they help each other find food. The story itself becomes a story of the two of them finding husbands and getting married at the end, which is not what my novel about gay black men in London is about. But, yeah, I thought… And then I started thinking about, you know, how can I transpose that and think about what a black queer man, or indeed a black straight man, might want in London in the 21st century? What might they need from one another that they can only get from this very non-traditional relationship for which we have no common language that fits? And that was the journey that I went on.

 

GILL

So, I think, I mean, there’s so much in there to unpack. I mean, my next question was one that you’ve kind of answered, in part, which is, you know, what are the things that keep us interested in characters? And then you sort of talk about relationships. And I’m interested to know whether you think a character can exist by themselves and be interesting, or whether really it’s about relationships, and that could be to setting or to other people, that really keep them interesting. And then to your final point, there is what drives it is needs, because a character with no needs is just a person sitting in a chair for 100,000 words. So to tackle the first one, what are the things, you’ve mentioned a few there, what are the things that, and particularly you talk generally, but for yourself, what are the things that keep us interested in characters in writing?

 

OKECHUKWU

Oh, this is so interesting. I love questions like this because there are so many right answers. I used to say as a teacher that, you know, because I spent about seven years teaching secondary school English, and I used to say there were times when I’d say, you know, there’s no right or wrong answer. But then towards the end, I started saying, well, there are several right answers. And I think this is one of those times. And yeah, what are the things that keep us interested in character? I think there are, one thing that comes to mind is, I remember reading an essay by Zadie Smith, I think from Changing My Mind a few years ago, a number of years ago now, where she wrote about her sort of journey of being a reader. And I love Zadie Smith’s essays.

Well, I love all of her writing, but I love her essays because she is so generous with describing the journey that she’s been on as a reader and a learner. And she talks about how when she was at university, she was all about, you know, it’s all about Bart and this kind of this time when Bart was so fashionable. And that’s true when I went to university as well, where you kind of, you’re tearing the text apart and the author doesn’t matter, and you’re just bringing your own self to it. And all these intentions were, do not factor in. And now she says in this essay, she reads in order to feel less alone. As an older, you know, as a slightly older person with, you know, perhaps a more mature look on life, she reads in order to feel less alone.

And what I don’t want to do is to reduce this to a question of like, likeability or relatability, because I think the kind of companionship that we want from characters is much deeper and more complex than that. It goes so far beyond whether you can relate to somebody or certainly beyond whether they tick certain criteria, you know, tick certain boxes of likeability, because that can be quite narrow. But I think that that kind of companionship is for me personally, what keeps me going with character.

I think of my favourite novels, some of my favourite novels when I was a teenager, I loved and still do love Jane Austen. And one of my favourite novels was Emma, which, you know, it’s about a protagonist who Jane Austen said herself, nobody else is going to like. But I love Emma as a protagonist. I love as a person, I think I would struggle. But as a character, I think she’s incredibly compelling. She’s somebody who makes giant mistakes over and over again, but who ultimately finds her way to understanding herself, to understanding the people around her and what they need, and the sort of the society in which she lives and what its limitations are. And I think that even if you don’t like somebody like that, you can’t like somebody like that in real life. I think she’s terrific company as a character, because in some way, we all make giant mistakes. We’ve all been on that journey, hopefully, however far along we might be. We’ve all been on that journey of understanding ourselves more and of readiness for the kind of happiness that she finds in the end of the novel. And I think I apply that to my characters.

You know, when I was writing Here Again Now, a novel about three black men in London, two of them gay, one an alcoholic in his 60s. I was not writing this with the expectation that everybody who, you know, every reader who reads novels in this country is going to pick it up and be like, ‘Oh, they’re like me,’ in any direct and obvious sense. But I think I was very much betting on and relying on that kind of open-minded need for companionship, which I think a lot of people probably do bring to fiction, which I do anyway.

 

GILL

It’s interesting, again, the next, I was going to sort of say that when, you know, kids’ books maybe, and I’m generalising possibly, but as you have this very, you know, it’s binary, you’ve got “goodies and baddies,” and we load onto those people what goody and baddy means. And then as we sort of, you know, literature changes, and actually there’s a spectrum in between, but it’s also, it’s web-like, and we have such a sort of a complexity of character now. I think there aren’t, very rarely you see an archetypal baddie who’s just evil, like a sort of a devil-like evil.

It’s, ‘Well, they had a bad upbringing,’ or, you know, it’s because they’ve been treated poorly or whatever it might be. Is that a useful way, do you think, to look at character? And how can we ensure that we have characters that elicit a rich set of emotions, as you say, not just loving, but confused? Is that Chibuike, the dad?

 

OKECHUKWU

Chibuike, yeah, yeah. Chibuike, yeah.

 

GILL

I can see that, you know, from your description, that’s going to be a toughie. A father figure, but possibly with demons and/or poor behaviours, so that it’s not someone that you read a book just to have a set of better friends than the ones you have. But it’s just to stimulate emotional responses, whether good or bad.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think that is absolutely true. I remember talking to somebody years ago who wouldn’t describe himself as a literary person or anything like that. I think he was a doctor. But he said, you know, ‘You read in order to feel something,’ and that’s always stayed with me. I think that’s really true, and I think that there are all sorts of ways that characters can make you do that. I think characters can make you feel something by, you know, disappointing you sometimes, or by frustrating you. You know, I think if I think about a character like Queenie from Candice Carty-Williams’ novel, she spends a lot of time being very unhappy and in kind of very difficult situations that are messy and complicated. And one of the things that kept me reading that novel was because, you know, you want this person to be happy and you want them to be safe, and she gets herself or she finds herself in these very tricky, difficult situations. And I think as frustrating as that can be, as when you want the best for a character as a person, when you think about them as a character, that is also what keeps you reading because you’re hanging on for that moment of change and transformation, and you want to know what that looks like.

And I think as people, sometimes we do — my feeling is sometimes we want a demonstration of what change can look like for people. I think, you know, certainly with my novel, which is about development of, you know, I suppose of relationships and of personalities, I felt a kind of a responsibility, I think, to demonstrate what certain things might look like under certain circumstances. You know, there’s not a lot of fiction out there about Black British gay men. There’s not a lot of fiction about the kind of relationships that I’m writing about. And so I wanted to — well, I had to write that with an awareness in mind of the fact that these relationships and these people do exist in real life. You know, there are Black queer men who have been neglected and mistreated and isolated, and I wanted to show — I felt I needed to show what that might look like, what it might look like if things changed for the better and what those journeys might look like. So, again, it’s not a case of kind of PR and making it look like everything is simple and nice and relatable, whatever that means. And actually letting go of that was a really freeing thing for me, realise that, you know, remembering and bearing in mind that my characters didn’t have to fly the flag for anybody in any straightforward sense. It meant that I could — I had room to let them make mistakes and let each other down and do things that didn’t necessarily make sense. And that was one of the best parts for me, actually, of that writing process and something which I hope makes people feel more tied to the characters. They’re not saints. They are experiencing difficult things, but they’re not perfect victims. And I think that we have — I hope — yeah, I think that we have, as a society, at least sort of evolved to the point where we can look at somebody who’s experiencing victimisation or suffering and empathise with them without necessarily needing that person to look or act a certain way that makes them seem sympathetic in any straightforward way.

 

GILL

Absolutely. I’ve literally just written down here just in front of you a note, the universality of certain human emotions and where they come from. And what springs to mind, because music is often my metaphor, but is whether it’s the protest songs of the ’60s, whether it’s punk or hip-hop, you know, different groups can relate to whatever is underlying that. So, you know, again, reading Akine’s character from Here Again Now, who’s — I mean, just my little notes are here — he’s sort of kind of anxious, a little maybe insecure, he hates confrontation and won’t say ‘I love you.’ Now, I’m not — you know, that identity is not mine, but I can feel what that’s like or to have been out with someone who’s like that. And so there’s a universality underneath it, because we’re all just human beings with a similar set of — yeah, similar psychology underneath it all.

And then to your point, and I want to ask you about journey, and I think journey, it seems, is a — again, I wrote a hobby novel, and just neither of the characters just changed in any way. It was just A to A. They’re both exactly the same by the end of it. So I think to your point about journey and changing over time, can I ask you how you ensure, if it’s — you know, if that needs to happen, how do you ensure that those characters go on a journey, whether it’s a self-realisation or realisation about their world, or just even a single thing that they learn? How do we sort of thread that into our characters?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, for me it comes back to how I start a story, because I always start with a dynamic between characters. So with my first novel, I knew I wanted it to be about a single mother and a teenage child. I then sort of narrowed that down to sort of a daughter, and she was half Nigerian, and the specifics of that came in later. And the more I knew about them, or the more I decided about them, I suppose, depending on how you think about it, the more I was realising that there’s a kind of an instability in this relationship, not in the sense that it might necessarily crumble or fall apart, but that it was not going to be static, that things are going to change.

In the first novel, it was about Nenna, the teenager, getting older and experiencing life and maybe moving away. She goes to university, and that’s a kind of instability, in that it means that the relationship is dynamic.Things have to change in order for that relationship to just keep moving through time, never mind to remain positive and nurturing. And with my second novel, I kind of realised a similar thing, in that I’m writing about three black men, among whom there is a lot of love, but among whom there is a lot of misunderstanding — or there have been mistakes, and there are deep needs, not all of which are being met, and that produces, again, a kind of an instability which leaves the relationship somewhere to go. Things are far from perfect at the start of the novel, and they’re certainly not going to stay perfect as the novel goes on. And I think that is quite a helpful way of thinking about it, in that it doesn’t necessarily mean that things have to be on the verge of falling apart, but there has to be some sort of instability, is the word I would use, that gives you somewhere to go, so that you know things aren’t just going to stay the same. I think it’s Janet Burroway who says something, and I’m paraphrasing, who says something like, ‘Happy lives don’t make good fiction.’ You know, in the sense that if everything is straightforward and happy and safe and stable all the time, there’s not a lot of space for the story to go, because conflict and instability and worry and the possibility of change, these are things that are really important to fiction a lot of the time. So for me, I think because I start with a relationship, because of the nature of human relationships, instability is often just a built-in factor of it, and you find it there anyway.

 

GILL

You used the word ‘conflict’ there, and we recently had the crime writer Julia Crouch on who said, basically, conflict, the moment you get two characters and you put them in conflict, and drama will ensue, and if you don’t have that, which is again the reason why my first book was just two people sitting in a forest for 70,000 words having a chinwag, and so Julia Crouch was saying, “Conflict.” You need that, and I think mapping that to what I’ve read of Here Again Now is it doesn’t have to be two people literally fighting, but I can feel the conflict between the, well, to your point, the needs. Ekene and Achike kind of have slightly different needs, and particularly Ekene’s need–I hope I’m not spoiling anything to say that Achike has this very successful burgeoning film career, and so is away a lot, and so Ekene’s needs, even though he needs this person, is kind of in conflict with Achike’s, what’s going on in his life.

So, is that something that you’re keenly aware of when you’re writing, that you feel those things, ‘Oh, here we go, the dad’s drinking again,’ or whatever it might be? Do you sort of feel those when you’re writing?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think conflict is such a huge and fruitful thing, isn’t it? It’s funny, as a writer, you kind of almost become the opposite of a nice person, where you just kind of think, ‘Hmm, suffering, that sounds quite interesting.’ Whereas as a person, you think, ‘Oh, no, suffering, let’s alleviate that.’ As a writer, you think, ‘Right, let’s go, where can this take me?’ And yeah, I think that’s true, and the fascinating thing about conflict is it can mean anything. I wish I could remember where I read this, but there’s someone very wise who wrote that conflict can mean conflict between people, it can mean within the self. In my case, it definitely means those two things, but also I’m thinking about conflict between the individual and society, and ways in which conflict can become or can evolve to a place where it’s much more collaborative. So, you know, what might it look like if people who are or might have been at loggerheads find a way to work with one another? What might it mean if a society which has been working through individuals to enforce oppression, to enact oppression, what might it look like when those individuals refuse to become agents of that oppression and change themselves and life for the better? So, I think conflict is so various, and I guess that means that the ways out of it are also equally various, if not more so.

 

GILL

Yeah, it’s interesting as well when you’re talking about what makes a character compelling, and whether it’s a sense of you’re rooting for them, and you have an affinity for them, or they’re just interesting to you, or that you’re fascinated with how flawed they are, or cruel or rude or whatever it might be.

And oddly, I had a list, I just thought, because my memory’s shocking, so I had to make just a bunch of notes about notable characters from books that I’d read. And actually one to that point that goes against it, which is interesting, is the Patrick Bateman character from American Psycho, which admittedly I read probably ten years ago, and I really only got about halfway through before I kind of thought, I get it, it’s just sort of a list of brutal things to do to people. And it didn’t compel me right the way through — because I wasn’t really rooting for him. He’d stopped being interesting to me.

I mean, of course I’m not saying it’s a bad book, they made it into a movie, what do I know? But it’s interesting that rather than having this kind of promise that’s set up at the beginning, I’m certainly, of course, rooting for a keen energy cater, become one and so on. And I suspect that if I read all that, I’m not going to get that from your expression there.

 

OKECHUKWU

I haven’t said nothing.

 

GILL

I was looking for trying to think of characters who fall outside of those characters who we’re rooting for and who we relate to, or at least are rooting for, who we need in the mix. And for the sake of brevity, they’re baddies, they are the thing that stand in the way, they’re the obstacle characters. Do you feel that they are, I suspect maybe in your writing, quite subtle, that they’re not Darth Vader-like characters that just arrive to mess everything up and stop our heroes getting what they want?

But, sorry, here comes the question. Do you have any particular notable characters you can think of that have particularly made you think, ‘I just want to know what happens to this person and it better be the good thing,’ or ‘I just want to be alongside this awful person,’ because it’s interesting rather than relatable?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, this is a really good question. And I’m thinking of somebody like Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart, or indeed from the sequel, No Longer a Tease. I think Chinua Achebe had a real gift for that. He can write these really difficult characters who make life difficult for themselves and the people around them, and yet you really want them to succeed, both in terms of what success looks like for them and for you. Okonkwo, I don’t want to spoil No Longer a Tease for anybody who hasn’t read it, but this is a man who is an idealist and who is struggling in a world which is far from ideal, and he makes some bad choices, and those bad choices kind of pile up, and you’re willing him to find his way, but you don’t always know what that looks like. And I think perhaps one of the thrilling things about that novel is that you know that you’re on a journey with him. You don’t really know the world. However well you might know Nigeria in the 20th century, you don’t know – the world is so complex and tricky that I think reading that novel, most people who read it will be just as lost as Okonkwo is in a way. And even if we can see he’s making mistakes, I don’t think that there’s a simple answer to the problems that he’s in. So you find yourself kind of on a journey with him, like, listen, let’s just roll those dice together, let’s figure out what a solution might look like for you or for me if I were to be in that situation. I think Chinua Achebe is – he’s very good at that. I’ve always wanted to emulate that kind of humanity that he has when he comes to people’s problems and flaws.

 

GILL

I’m going to – I think it’s a conversation you had with your friend Andrew on a podcast that I watched recently, and you were talking about the editing. You do your first draft, maybe have a bit of a second draft, and then for particular aspects, getting forensic. And I just love that because I’m really interested in craft, so I love that phrase, getting forensic, with aspects of it. Tell me, when you’ve done a first draft and you’re reviewing those characters, are there things that you feel as you’re going through that you need to amp up, dial down, make more complex or change in some way? What are the kinds of things that in the editing and redrafting process, have you felt about your characters that you had to do something to them to make them successful characters?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think the word forensic is really key there, because some of the best advice I’ve had in writing is that you have to be not just ruthless, but yeah, forensic. You can’t just kind of – it can’t just be, ‘no edits, just vibes,’ which I think is always the instinct when you sit down and sort of chain – and sit down to chain something that you already feel really passionate about. You have to be – well, what I say to my students is that you have to be gentle with yourself and ruthless with your work, which is because you are human, and your work is not. And that means that, yeah, when it comes to editing,

I suppose it’s different for everybody and different for every story. For me, and certainly with Here Again Now, what I wanted to do, I went on a real journey with this book where, you know, even within the first draft, the first complete draft, there were maybe six or seven different types of ways of telling the story. I was experimenting with chronology in ways which would mean that the book would not make sense if you read the first draft from beginning to end. It would feel like several different books. And I was experimenting with tone and with the cast of characters, some of whom appeared in the early chapters of the first draft and were never seen again. And – or vice versa, you know, the other way around. So – when I was editing, I guess the most obvious thing is I was editing for a consistency. I wanted it to feel like one – not even one idea, I suppose, but one project driven by ideas which get along with each other.

I was editing to make sure that there weren’t extraneous characters. There was a character who – God, it was such a different first draft, my goodness. The characters – there was a character who came at the very end of the novel in the very first draft. And I loved that character. It was really painful for me to get rid of her. But I had to because the way that she’d come into the character, the way that she’d come into the story and the role that she played, my agent read it and she said, ‘I love this character, but I feel like she doesn’t really belong here in the way that she’s come in and the time that she’s come in.’ And I had to think about it very carefully. Can I figure out a way to bring this person in in a more substantial way earlier on so that it doesn’t feel so abrupt? And I couldn’t. And I thought, I’ll just have to save that person for another story because I really like her. But – and you sort of – you know, maybe these are one – these are just some lies you tell yourself as a writer.

I may never – I may never use that character again, but she’s somewhere on my – she’s somewhere on my Dropbox and I will figure out a way if I can to get her into the story. But I think, yeah, I was definitely editing for that. I was editing for prose style as well. That was something that was really important to me with this novel because I was very conscious that I was writing into a space where there weren’t a lot of – there weren’t a lot of models, close models of novels about black British queerness in the way that I was writing about it, certainly, that could sort of demonstrate that this is a thing that is worthy to be written about. So – I wanted the prose style to demonstrate how rich and complex this subject matter is and how worthy it is. So, I was thinking about how – and that, again, like I mentioned earlier, I was thinking about tone.

And so – as I realised just the level of, I guess, seriousness that I wanted the novel to offer, that meant thinking about register and diction and rhythm and these little things that make up what we call prose style. And so, I had to make sure that that felt unified without ever feeling, to me anyway, static. And that meant thinking about, OK, you can write an opening in this way, but how does that prose style adapt itself when you’re thinking about an argument between two people or a meditation that one person has when he’s by himself on the tube or an ending to a novel that’s taken these characters on a journey? And that was a really interesting part of the journey for me. It meant I was reading poetry as well as prose and thinking about how both of those could contribute to my style — and just trying to pick the best out of everything I’d read and thought about that made sense for this narrative.

 

GILL

It’s really interesting you said the word consistency, making sure that the characters are consistent. A bit that I am really interested in and will find really challenging is making people believably inconsistent in the way that human beings are like that. I spent the first part of my career interviewing bands and one day you get them and they’re being an idiot and the next day they’re being lovely. And that’s just human beings. But if you capture them in that moment, they’re just a two-dimensional person. And so – it must be a real challenge to have people, sorry, to write people, to create characters who are believably inconsistent and don’t just feel like they just don’t work as a character. That must be a real challenge.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think it is. And when I’m thinking about it now, I guess there are two things I would say to that. The first of which is that motivation is really complex but also really simple in that the same sometimes, if you have a person who’s done something great one day and something much more questionable the next, sometimes the motivation for those two things might be one and the same thing, but just feeding itself through that person in different ways. And also, I think what makes characters believable sometimes is what the story indicates to you should expect from that character.

So, because I was writing a novel about characters who are, I think it’s immediately clear for the first couple of chapters that these characters are messy and complicated and really deeply flawed. And I’m writing a novel which is not plot-driven in the way that you might expect perhaps characters whose motivations are much more straightforward to drive. This, I think, that was important I think in terms of not luring the reader into a false sense of security. In that sense, you know, nobody who reads, I don’t think anybody who reads my novel in the first couple of chapters is going to expect it to be a simple, straightforward story. You know that you’re dealing with messy people. And so — once you’ve set that up and allowed your reader into that space, I suppose on those conditions, it gives you a lot of freedom I think to let your characters mess up and do things which at first glance might seem out of character. I think it’s a kind of, I wanted to write the kind of story that encourages you to be open-minded about what it means to be in and out of character.

 

GILL

I am, same time, I’m currently reading, I’ve never read any Carlos Ruiz Zafón before, but my other half recommended it, so I’m currently reading Shadow of the Wind. And in it, the story is that there is this sort of mysterious character, this novelist who no one knows about. And so, the hero goes on the journey of finding out who this person is. So, each kind of chapter, each scene is peeling back another little piece of the onion layer. And it got me thinking as I was reading the beginning of Here Again Now, that even if that character, your characters are not supposed to be mysterious, is that actually you’re still peeling back the layers. And is that something that you’re mindful of when you’re writing, is to give away enough to make me want to read about these people, but at the same time not give you everything all in one go, keep them sort of interesting, but not necessarily in an enigmatic, mysterious way.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I think that one of the things that teaching and writing have in common is that how you do it is a big part of what it is that you’re doing. You know, if you want to teach a child, I don’t know, if you want to teach a child the plot of a Shakespeare play, there are a number of ways that you can do that. But if you do that, you can do that through getting them to read a synopsis and then fill out a sheet where they fill in the blanks, or you can do it through drama and have a discussion. And how you teach something is a big part of what it is that you’re teaching.

And I think the same thing is true of narrative. How you choose to do it is a big part of what it is that you’re doing. So — when I wrote Here Again Now, I could have told you everything about Ekene and Achike and Chibuike straight away, but the how that gets revealed is a big part of the story itself. And so, without giving too much away, we do find out things about all three of them. As the story goes on, that hopefully change the way we see them. But also, the manner in which that is revealed, I wanted that to reflect the fact that they are all learning about each other and about themselves. And in a sense, any feelings that the characters might have when they learn those things about one another, about themselves, are shared by the reader and that we are on the journey with people who are getting to understand themselves more. And once they do, they realise that their options in life change with that understanding.

 

GILL

You mentioned earlier about supporting characters. In what I read of Here Again Now, I met Julian, the agent, who I don’t know, but it seems a part of the supporting cast, but got a very keen sense of what he’s like. I’m interested in your view about the supporting cast and what their role is and how to keep them at the level, the volume level, if you like, so they’re not overshadowing the key players, but that they have their role of reflecting something about our key characters that is important. Or are they MacGuffins? Are they driving the plot forward? So, talk to us a little bit about how you approach those supporting characters, like the person you just said that you removed. It was extraneous, whereas there might be other times where you need to put someone in.

 

OKECHUKWU

So E.M. Forster writes about round characters and flat characters, and he talks about how the rounder characters, I guess we would say that they’re more nuanced, they’re more complex, they’re richer, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you spend every word of every page telling us about them, but that our access to them as readers allows us to understand them in more depth and detail, perhaps, than a flatter character might be, who we don’t necessarily get those kind of nuances and light and shade in the same amount, in the same level of detail that we might for a rounder character.

And so the rounder characters, of course, tend to be the more central ones, whereas the flatter ones tend to be perhaps the supporting characters. And I think there’s all sorts of stuff in between, but I think really what it means, the decisions that I had to make were to do with the contract, I suppose, you have with the reader. If you… There are no rules, I think, in fiction. I think it’s all about what options you have available to you and what you choose to do with them in relation to the readership that you are writing towards. But I think that there’s a kind of expectation that a reader will have if you write a very round, filled-out character.

You know, we’re expecting to see more of them, we’re expecting the story to follow them, whereas if we’re writing a character like Julian, who is, you know, I don’t tell you as much about him, he’s not written about in as much detail, that teaches you to expect… that teaches the reader to expect that maybe they are going to play a more minor role. What’s interesting is how you play with those expectations about what a major and minor role looks like and who gets it in the novel. And again, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I can’t really say too much more, but the kind of… I guess one thing I had to do when I was writing and editing that novel – was build in what I knew about how the novel was going to end when I was writing the beginning and sort of, I guess, setting up that contract with the reader about who you’re going to get to know and what you’re going to get to know about them.

 

GILL

It’s interesting as well — the round and the flat characters. It sort of occurred to me that I like HG Wells, the early sort of sci-fi, and even what I read, Jekyll and Hyde, a recently very short book, but it’s interesting, it seems to me, that over 120 years of Freud and psychotherapy and psychology and neuroscience, we at the dinner table have so much more understanding of human nature and mental health and all these sorts of things, is that we’re so much more demanding of complex, interesting characters that there’s… do you feel there’s an expectation of that, that it would be hard to write a sort of, ‘Here’s the hero and here’s the villain.’

You know, it’s just not interesting enough for us anymore, and that for 100 years we’ve been on that journey, that we need to have sort of complex, rich, interesting characters, because our readers can understand it now. They have the vocabulary of introverts and extroverts and all of the infinite things that lie in between.

Yeah, absolutely, and I hope I’m not being too simplistic when I say that it’s probably a lot down to modernism and the horrors of the 20th century, that after we’ve seen people turn on one another in huge ways, after we’ve looked at whole nations commit atrocities and mechanised war, and after we’ve looked at… after some people have looked at colonialism and realised actually that wasn’t such a good thing after all, I think it’s very difficult for us to have an appetite for… to have a consistent appetite for, I would say, characters who don’t offer that nuance in whatever degree.

But then really, whenever we ever… I think about Odysseus, who, even by the standards of his time, was not a saint, and yet he is somebody who is rooted for and followed and loved as a character, even if as a person. He might not have had a whole lot of very close friends. He is rooted for as a character, and he drives this really compelling narrative. I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question. I’m sure… I cannot think of the 20th century, and I’m not a historian, but from what I know of it, I cannot think of it as having anything but a profound impact on the way we think of people and therefore on the way we think of stories. But also, I think there is something older than that in the way that we write character, which demands complexity.

 

GILL

I’m not that ‘au fait’ — I’ve read a couple of Bronte and Austen books, but you said that you’re a fan. Reflect then on that. It may be that I’m wrong, that 150 years ago, actually, people were addressing those rich, conflicted characters. It may well be that they didn’t have the scientific vocabulary to describe that, but those characters are rich in that way.

Do you think that’s going on then?

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, I do. In fact, it reminds me of something that I once heard in a lecture years ago, actually, of Shakespeare, which is that he was a genius, but he wasn’t always a genius.

He became a genius through the body of his work, which I think is true of probably most geniuses. They write and they learn as they’re writing, and they develop – and they grow.And I think that’s probably true. Again, I think of something like Persuasion by Jane Austen as a really brilliant book in a number of ways, one of which is what we’re talking about now, where we have characters who… Anne Elliot, who is the protagonist of Persuasion, she’s somebody who has passed upon an opportunity for love at a young age and now finds herself at the ‘ghastly’ age of 27 in the company of the man who she originally turned down. And I think what is interesting about that novel is that it’s a novel about a choice that she made, however pressured that choice might have been. It’s a novel about a choice that she made and how she’s going to live with that choice and what that means for her and the life that she might live.

And I think what is fascinating about that is that it’s a novel that examines the consequences of choices in a way that’s actually very patient and generous and compassionate, but completely clear-eyed about what life means if you make a choice that takes you in a different direction from what you might have had.

 

GILL

It’s interesting, yes. We talk about conflict, and I think the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, which I’m paraphrasing, is it is: ‘the pursuit of every young woman to find a man with a fortune.’ Or whatever it might be.

 

OKECHUKWU

How can you not quote that line from memory? My goodness! No, don’t worry, I’m just being silly. No, I know exactly what you mean, yeah.

 

GILL

So, you have… The human conflict is with rules. So actually, what we’re talking about is human nature is what it is, and the heart wants what the heart wants, but if society has its rules, then that’s where the conflict comes in, and I guess that’s what those characters are reflecting on in their journeys.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of the time in Austen… I do read other books than Jane Austen, but a lot of the time in Austen you do find characters who are coming up against what… Because she’s writing about women, and often not about rich, influential women, you’re writing about characters who are coming up against what society will or won’t let them do, or society will or won’t make them do, and I think then within that often it’s about, you know, what are your resources, what are your options, and what can you do with those, and what might life look like for you if you make the wrong choice, which is something that Austen does really well, I find it really interesting.

 

GILL

I’m going to wrap with a quote that I’m quoting from you, back to you, that I wrote… This is from a conversation that you were having. I just thought, “That is absolute gold,” so I had to pause and write it down. I then wrote a question that I’m not going to be able to just remember to write it down, so here it comes. You said– and the context of this is, obviously –identity– is a very big part of the public conversation at the moment, but it also seems to be very, very useful because it overlaps so hugely with character and what characters are.

And you said: ‘Identity is a set of things people tell you about yourself and a set of things you tell yourself about yourself.’

And so, the question is, is that what we kind of need to achieve when writing fictional characters is someone who’s an entity in the novel, but that through the writer, we are then– the reader is then the observer of that person– is a character in a book, the combination of themselves as this entity but also as the writer presenting and reflecting on that. So, I just– I found your quote fascinating and instructive.

 

OKECHUKWU

Oh, thank you. That’s such an interesting question. What is it that constitutes a character? I mean, I think at heart, I’m one of those writers who thinks there is nothing in a character except what the author tells you, and then a reader can take from that what they take from that, and every reader’s going to hear that differently and interpret it in a different way, and you’ll pick up on some things more and others less.

 

GILL

So I guess it’s about what you can control and what you can’t, because you can’t control who the reader is, and therefore the lens through which they see the person that you’re reading. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you put Here Again Now into the hands of a dozen very different people. You’d get very different reads, literally and figuratively, on your characters.

 

OKECHUKWU

Yeah, absolutely, and I’ve already had those responses. Some of the loveliest things I’ve had are from people, black queer people or black people who aren’t queer, who say that the narrative helps them to understand themselves or their queer family or friends better or their relationships with their family in different ways.

But also, I’ve had wonderful responses from people who talk about the way that the novel represents how we talk about African mythology and how we talk about addiction or how we talk about being a child who was born, you know, to be born in this country to an immigrant or to immigrant parents. And I love that, and I’m sure there are people who read it in different ways and have fewer positive things to offer in response, but I think there is something really profound about the freedom of response that we give readers when we create things.

 

END OF INTERVIEW

 

GILL

If you have questions or want to get in touch, you can find us on Instagram and Twitter @WritersCentre and you’ll find us on Facebook by searching National Centre for Writing. Don’t forget to sign up to our weekly newsletter by visiting nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk and clicking the orange drop-down box on the homepage.

 

STEPH

As a UK-registered charity, we rely on the generosity of our supporters to make our work possible. You can make a donation over on the website today – by hitting the Support Us button in the top nav.

 

GILL

Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review us because it helps other writers to find the podcast.

 

STEPH

Thanks again, keep writing, and we’ll catch you on the next episode.

 

END OF EPISODE

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