The divine power of the novelist

I’m not the world’s most decisive person. Even quite trivial decisions cause me endless stress. I dither and agonise, considering one option and another, sometimes half the night. Yet when it comes to my fictional characters, I suffer no such torments. Quite the reverse, I revel in my control over their fates. Limited only by my imagination, I am free to manipulate their lives at will, reward or punish them, bring tragedy or triumph onto their heads. Like an omnipotent god, I can give them what they most crave or deny them all consolation. And what’s more, it’s power without responsibility because after all, it is only a story.

In both Secrets of the Pomegranate and The Red Gene, I had to kill off important characters – not an easy option. After accompanying them for months or years, sharing their innermost emotions, their hopes and dreams and darkest fears, I had come to regard them as close friends. Being so attached made it feel almost disloyal to sacrifice them for the sake of the plot. It might surprise some readers to know that even the author who has engineered their demise feels a keen sense of loss.

Far more than non-fiction writers, who deal mostly in facts, novelists are faced with myriad decisions at every stage of the process. Before even starting to write, the basic questions of plot, characters, setting, point of view and more have to be decided. But it doesn’t stop there. Although it’s true that the characters take on lives of their own, it is still up to the author to set the seal on every small act, approve each line of dialogue uttered, resolve the quandaries they face.

In The Red Gene, after researching the backgrounds of the real British nurses who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, I had to decide on my heroine’s social and geographical milieu and her motivation for going to Spain. Was she one of those girls from the East End of London or a northern industrial city who had joined a trade union or the Communist party after seeing at first hand the terrible conditions of poverty and disease in the slums of her hometown? Was she driven by her political beliefs, the mission to stop fascism in its tracks? Or was she from a more comfortable background, moved less by politics than by humanitarian concerns, feelings of empathy for the suffering population in Spain.

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Once I had decided on Rose’s background and the impulses that prompted her to take this brave step, her personality began to emerge but not without a whole series of choices by her creator (me). All her actions, the decisions she herself made throughout her life, were dictated at least in part by this personality, influenced naturally by the experiences, good and bad, that I’d chosen to put her through.

As a girl born at the start of the Franco dictatorship, Consuelo had far fewer options open to her than did Rose. Whatever personality I bestowed on her, the mere fact of being female determined her function in life: to be a wife and mother. Growing up in a strongly nationalist family, it does not even cross her mind to question her role.



Her daughter Marisol, on the other hand, inhabits a very different Spain, one that has changed almost beyond recognition. She has many more choices, many more opportunities, which means I, as the author, was faced with many more possibilities. I was free to give Marisol the personality and path in life that best suited my purposes.

In developing the plot, there are logistical questions to be resolved – like how to get my characters from one place to another. Rose’s decision, revealed in the first two pages of the book, about what to do when the war was over, determined the whole direction of the story but it was up to me to decide on the outcome of that decision and later to find a way of getting her safely out of Spain. Achieving that tricky feat relied on an interaction between chance events and aspects of her personality. My ingenuity was similarly tested in Consuelo’s case. Having decided where I wanted her to grow up (in what kind of family and geographical location), my challenge was to find the means of enabling it. This time, I had to rely solely on fate to achieve my objective.

My biggest decision, however, concerned the resolution of the story, how it would end. Would Rose and Consuelo, the two most important characters, meet and if so, how and where. On that particular point, my lips are firmly sealed. To reveal the answer would be a complete spoiler for those who haven’t yet read the book.

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