Sunday 30 June 2013

Anna Jacobs talks about how she finds her characters.

  This week I'm deleighted to welcome Anna Jacobs to my blog. I asked her how she comes up with her characters and she has given us some interesting answers:

* Do you start with your characters or your plot?
I usually start with a situation, which sometimes involves a character, and sometimes only a vague ‘what if a person was in this situation?’ question in my mind. The whole of my present Traders series began because Bram, a secondary character in ‘Destiny’s Path’, would not stop walking through my dreams. He was, and still is, probably the most romantic hero I’ve ever created. He’s not tall, dark or handsome, but of middle height and scrawny, and yet, he fell so deeply in love it brought tears to my eyes. He stars in the first book (Trader’s Wife) and is involved in a minor way in the other four books.
So this series started with a character so strong, I postponed the book I was planning to write, then Bram and I together created a new series, starting in Singapore in 1865. He is the central character of Book 1 (The Trader’s Wife) and is involved in every book in the five-part series.

* Do you write a biography of all your character/main only/none?
I’ve never written a biography of any character. I tried to once, in the early days, when I was testing out various possibly useful writing techniques, and found I couldn’t do it, couldn’t ‘see’ the character that way. I dream up a hero or heroine (sometimes literally) and follow him/her into the first two or three chapters. As I rewrite the chapters, I then feel I’m getting to know that character better until he/she is vivid in my mind. Then I’m away . . . writing . . . dreaming about them . . . finding out what happens to them in the rest of the story.

* Do you base your characters on a real person/film actor etc or are they entirely imaginary?
I have never in all my 60+ novels used a real character as the basis for one of my characters. It’s never even occurred to me to do that. I’m writing fiction, and the characters have to fit my story not the other way round.

* Do you cut photos out of magazines to use as your main characters?
Good heavens, no! I’m a very visual person and I can see them so clearly in my mind’s eye I don’t want real people’s faces intruding. I don’t describe my characters’ appearance in great detail, either. I leave it to the reader to flesh that out. I’m more interested in my characters’ inner life and courage/emotions.

* Do you see your characters or only hear them or both?
Both. They walk through my dreams, especially when I’m drowsy, half-awake and fully relaxed, and I see a virtual movie show with sound effects. I feel as if I’m standing right next to the one who is the point of view character in each scene, feeling their every breath, every emotion.

* How many characters do you think are too many for a book to work?
I can’t give exact numbers, because each story has it’s own needs. I did too many for ‘Family Connections’. I’ve never counted the ones in that book, but if I were writing now, I’d make it two books. I knew by half-way through that I had too many sub-plots but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the plots/characters out, as I’d grown too fond of them. I still love the story. I think I managed to make what happens clear, but I’d not do that many characters/sub-plots again.
I’m published in historical and modern romance, fantasy, romantic suspense, sagas. Whatever the genre, I always have at least two sub-plots and accompanying characters. I write longer books (80-110,000 words) and that means not only more people but more points of view. If I were writing shorter books (50-60,000 words), I couldn’t put as many characters in. In fact, I tried a shorter book and found it very hard. It’s not ‘me’.

* How do you make your characters individual? Accent? Catch phrases? Mannerisms? Other things?
I don’t think of it as mechanically as that. They *are* individuals. I start with hair colour and height. If an accent is necessary eg an Irish character, I may mention that but I don’t try to write an Irish accent down phonetically. It’d slow the story down and puzzle readers not totally familiar with Irish accents. Accents are ‘music’ of how words are put together as well as ways of saying individual words. I learned 5 foreign languages when younger and feel I understand that aspect a bit.

I don’t think up mannerisms, either. These ‘people’ are so real that they seem to be complete once I’m into the book, past that magic first three chapters of setup. They already have their own ways.

The hero of ‘Heir to Greyladies’ for instance, is in a wheelchair (an early version of one, it’s 1900) and I didn’t intend him to be the hero. But Joseph was so interesting – intelligent and kind – that I let him improve his walking by persistent secret practice (his mother was too smothering) till he could manage to move awkwardly and not need a wheelchair around the house. His problems were due to a bad hip, curable now in infancy. And actually, at a crucial moment, he shoved his wheelchair in the villain’s way.

* Do you write with multi-view point/deep third/first/omnipotent/narrator – or a combination of these?
I don’t go into technicalities and think about it mechanically, eg I’m going to write in deep third, etc. I ‘tell’ a story, seen through the main characters’ eyes. I always write with several viewpoints, because to me it gives a more interesting story, and anyway, that’s how the characters show me what’s happening.

I usually change viewpoint character when I move to a new scene, but sometimes I stay with the same character through two or three scenes. Whatever fits the story. Oh, and I do quite a lot of introspection ie what the characters are thinking as well as what they’re saying.

* How often do your characters run away with your plot?
As I said, Bram inspired me with the series plot/background to The Traders, so he dragged me into the story. I’m writing the last (5th) book in the series now. Once I’ve seen the characters, they lead me through the plot, or I walk with them. That’s how it feels, at least. But I only go in a direction I hadn’t planned for mentally if the plot twist fits the whole story. It usually does, actually. I should explain that I usually ‘see’ the next few scenes as I write.
If I get stuck as to what happens next, I know I’ve missed some twist or turn, so I go back and re-read the last couple of chapters, and somehow one character starts moving again. I also give myself permission to write rubbish and I push on, whatever it feels like. It’s never rubbish when I come back to it the next day, but it’s sometimes weaker than usual, so I and my characters revisit the scene and make it more vivid.

* Would you ever kill a main character/child/animal/villain?
Not often with an important character, and I usually only kill children vaguely ie the neighbour’s child might die of a fever. I killed the current hero in Book 4 of my first series, the Gibson Family Saga, but Frederick was much older than his wife and he died ‘naturally’. It took me the whole book to do it and I wept buckets over the death. I needed a new direction to keep a five-book series alive and a new husband of Annie’s own age had already walked out of the mists – she didn’t know that then, only I did.
I cry even when I kill a minor character if it’s a nice person, but not if I kill a villain. If my husband comes home to find me red-eyes, he asks at once, ‘Who have you been killing now?’

* In your opinion which is more important – plot or character?
They’re so entwined, I can’t separate them. Plot is character, as far as I’m concerned. It has its own tone/needs and the ‘people’ in the story are an integral part of it. You couldn’t have that particular plot without those specific characters. You need a good plot, and you need vivid characters to put it all together.

Really, I like to call what I do story-telling, rather than writing, and my stories are about people, not characters.
  Thank you Anna - it's always fascinating to enter a writer's head and see how they work.

Here are some details of the two books she has told us about. I am intrigued by the Heir to Greyladies - a hero who can't walk? Sounds like a must read.

‘The Trader’s Gift’ (published by Hodder & Stoughton) will be released on 4 July, and ‘Heir to Greyladies’ (published by Allison & Busby) will be released on 29 July. This is the first time two of my publishers have coincided on a publication month.

‘The Trader’s Gift’ is Book 4 in the five-part Traders series. 1871: In England, Eleanor Prescott has not forgotten the ship's captain who was a true friend to her. Dougal McBride told her to come to him if she was free. When her ailing husband dies, she risks returning toWestern Australia. But will Dougal still want her after nearly a year? 

Mitchell Nash has asked his cousin in England whether he knows any suitable lady. For Jacinta, a penniless widow, desperate to keep her young son from a cruel relative's clutches, Mitchell's invitation to go to Australia and marry him is a lifeline she will grasp with both hands, however risky it is to marry a stranger.

‘Heir to Greyladies’ is Book 1 in a new series. In 1900, her father dies suddenly and life for fifteen-year-old Harriet Benson changes for ever. Sent into service in the country, she becomes friends with the owners' crippled son Joseph. Circumstances force Joseph to leave the family home at the same time as Harriet unexpectedly inherits Greyladies, a supposedly haunted house in Wiltshire. Could this be the safe haven she so desperately needs or will her stepbrother spoil things for her and take over her life and inheritance?


  1. Thanks, Fenella, Anna is one of my favourite authors and I love her stories.

  2. Anne, I just popped in before going off to read another author's book in bed. Thank you for your lovely comment. I'm now going to bed with a glow.

  3. What a wonderful interview...intelligent questions and comprehensive answers that gave me a fascinating insight into this aspect of Anna's work. Thank you, Fenella, for putting Anna in the spotlight and thank you, Anna, for sharing so readily.

  4. It's my pleasure to share, Teena. Thanks for your interest. Now, my characters are about to start rehearsing for a concert on board their steamship. There's always something going on . . .

  5. The more experienced one is as a writer, the more one sees the sense behind Anna's words. One reaches this kind of confidence and trust in one's own capabilities to tell a story sufficiently well only after leaping over hurdles, jumping through hoops and understanding the complexities of storytelling. I could relate to allowing oneself free to narrate and explore.

  6. Interesting questions and answers from such a well published author. Thanks.

  7. Thank you for visiting, Dale. Happy reading!

  8. I must put your latest books on my Kindle -but had better clear my diary as I'll want to read right through without stopping.

  9. Thanks, Fenella. I've been looking at your books and have my eye on some of them, but what struck me was how lovely the covers were. Beautiful.