Where do fictional characters come from?

I’m re-reading Joseph Conrad‘s Nostromo and in the prologue he tells how the idea for the protagonist first came to him.  In 1875 he heard about a man who had stolen a boat full of silver during the course of a revolution.  Conrad then completely forgot about the story for twenty six or twenty seven years.

Then he chanced to pick up a shabby book; the autobiography of an American sailor.  The sailor said that he worked for this man who was now captain of a small boat he had bought with some of the proceeds of his theft.  The sailor said that the man had been able to steal the silver only because his employers had trusted him implicitly.  Yet the American sailor considered his captain to be a rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose and altogether unworthy of the greatness which this opportunity had thrust upon him.

Conrad wondered whether this would make the basis of a good story but eventually decided that his talents did not run to writing about a rascal who committed a robbery.

Conrad in 1916

‘It was only when it dawned upon me,’ Conrad writes, ‘that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of a twilight country and events flowing from the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil.’

I love this story of how one of the great figures of literature was born.  It sent a shiver down my spine.

I began to consider how my characters appear and are changed, the genesis and evolution of them.  So many of my favourite characters seem to appear from nowhere, tapping on my keyboard and yelling, ‘Write about me, write about me.’

Does this happen to you?  I’d love to hear how the characters you write about came into life.


About Martin Lake

Martin Lake lives in the French Riviera with his wife. After studying at the University of East Anglia he worked as a teacher, trainer and company director. A serious accident shattered his arm and meant that he had to rein back his work. He decided to concentrate on writing and is now writing full-time. He writes a wide range of fiction. His main interests are historical fiction, short stories and fiction for young adults. Martin has a series of novels 'The Lost King' which are set in the years following the Norman Invasion of England. They concern Edgar Atheling, last representative of the ancient English royal dynasty and his fight to regain the throne from William the Conqueror. Martin has also published 'Artful' the further adventures of the Dodger and 'Outcasts' a novel about fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. His latest novel, 'A Love Most Dangerous' is about a maid of honour who becomes the lover of Henry VIII. Martin’s work has been broadcast on radio. He won first prize in the Kenneth Grahame Society competition to write a story based on 'The Wind in the Willows.' You can get the collection, 'The Wind in the Willows Short Stories' from Amazon.
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