Two thirds of the way into my novel, something extraordinary happened. My manipulative youth who nicks his mum’s contraceptives and Prozac to flog at school, turned out to have a heart. He gave a short, inarticulate but impassioned speech to my protagonist about how much he loves the girl around whom the story is based. I looked at my notes in panic. He’s not supposed to do this. He’s a git, from a strong, unbroken line of gits. I hadn’t figured much of a heart beat under that scrawny chest. If I’d wanted my characters to extemporise so far from the script, I’d not have bothered plotting the book before writing it.
But now that I saw him trying to behave honourably when all around him adults schemed and brawled, I realised I must let him, just as my own kids deviate from plans we’ve made if they have a better idea. What would happen if at the end he got back together with the girl? The replacement boyfriend I’d lined up for her wasn’t shaping up as planned either: he kept snickering away like Beavis and Butthead when I'd instructed him to be unobtrusively gorgeous.
I imagine any novelist reading this is thinking, ‘Already two thirds of the way through before that happened? Duh! That’s how books get written.’ Alice Walker claimed the characters from The Colour Purple marched into her kitchen one day and started dictating their stories to her. And though I recognised the vividness of a character’s presence in what she described, their autonomy was alien. My character’s bid for freedom was a revelation after the control-freakery of short fiction writing where every comma is scrutinised. Trying to control the first two thirds of the novel had been like the agonising slow haul towards the crest of the Big Dipper; now momentum from the hard slog was sparking change.
As soon as one character got free rein, they were all at it, petitioning for improvements to their script, ganging up on me:
‘Can we come in three scenes earlier please, because we have just driven all night from London to Northumberland, so we think we deserve a better entrance than just arriving on boring old schedule at the flat.’
‘Could S and I actually not get tied up in an old clock tower because we think that’s desperately naff plotting? We thought you could give a juicy scene to C instead, because she hasn’t done much since p 54, and you know what she’s like with a bottle of caustic soda in her hands…’
Yes, yes, all right! I started feeling for Mike Leigh – all these actors he hired as walk-ons improvising their way into lead roles.
It has been strangely like having children. After a while you stand back and merely watch in awe as they whir around the furniture, creating turbulence, proclaiming and demanding, and you think: Who on earth made you? Where did you come from? What are you going to do next? Because I have no idea. From now on I’ll just stay quiet and observe. It’s more fun for all if I do…