How different are the characters you write about to the people you know? Whisper it: how different are they from you?
Now, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. I live in a bit of London that could serve as a good location for a gritty and realistic crime drama. My husband is a different colour to me. I don’t have kids, but I’m pretty sure my cats belong to a gang.
I was also brought up in a tiny village in Wales where there was one bus a week and everyone knew everyone else. I went to university, but I was the first person in my family who did. I have friends and family who are doctors, warehouse workers, academics, police officers, company directors, tube station attendants and shop assistants.
Like I say, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. But I’m not.
This was brought home to me a couple of times in recent weeks when, as a result of circumstances I must conceal to protect the innocent, I found myself in company with People Who Were Very Different to Me.
If I tried to describe why I found them so different, I could say that some of them lived in different kinds of places – more or less affluent, small towns, rural areas or even just different cities. I could say that some of them had different sorts of family background and education to me. Some of them were quite a lot older, some quite a lot younger.
But really, it wasn’t any of those things. It was that, for one reason or another, they had a very different outlook on life. A different way of relating to other people that’s hard to quantify. I found them difficult to talk to. I expect they had the same experience.
It made me think: how individual, how genuine are the characters I write about? How different are they, not only from each other, but from me?
Okay, I’m not – to my knowledge – a murderous psychopath or an increasingly unhinged, phobic charity worker, or an anally-retentive, overbearing older sister (alright, I might be that last one) – but how far away am I really from the thoughts that go on inside their heads? From their way of looking at the world around them? How far is it possible to give them a life that isn’t, in some way or another, my own?
And doesn’t that make writing just about the most public bit of soul-bearing it’s possible to do?
Hmm. I’m glad I didn’t think of that before I sent my draft to my beta-readers.