I have a problem. And, as with so much in life, it’s a problem which brings Jane Austen to mind.
Fellow devotees of Miss Austen will know that Emma Woodhouse, heroine of the eponymous novel, just can’t bring herself to like Jane Fairfax. Jane is the niece of one of Emma’s neighbours and, despite the two girls being roughly the same age and Jane being intelligent, educated and otherwise the epitome of the suitable companion, Emma finds her – well, more than a bit annoying. The problem, we are told, is that she is too “reserved”. Emma can’t work out what she thinks about anything; she can’t confide in her; she can’t instruct her, or scold her, or laugh with her. In short, she can’t work out what makes her tick. As a result, she decides the less she has to do with her, the better.
Mid-way through plotting my second novel, I’ve had to conclude that my main character has more than a touch of the Janes. Whilst several of my minor dramatis personae have introduced themselves with unexpected enthusiasm, telling me all sorts of unimagined things about themselves, Lucy – or maybe Chloe (this woman is such an enigma, I can’t even work out what her name is) – is keeping resolutely shtum.
Of course, I know what happens to her – at least, the big stuff that forms the core of the plot. My problem is that I can’t work out what she thinks about it. And that means I don’t know how she reacts. Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to trying to tell a story. It also means I’m finding myself coming over all Emma Woodhouse – I mean, I know Lucy’s a very private person and all, but surely she can tell me what she’s thinking? I created her after all! Doesn’t that entitle me to some kind of confidence? Doesn’t she have any sense of gratitude?!
Quite apart from needing to understand her better to work out what she’d do in the different situations in which she’s going to be finding herself, I can’t help but feel I need to get to know Lucy if I’m going to be spending time with her. I mean, writing a novel takes a long time. Who wants to hang around with someone who never tells you anything about themselves? And I want the reader to sympathise with her – let’s face it, if she refuses to give much of a clue as to how she feels about anything, that’s going to be an uphill struggle.
In Emma, Emma and Jane do eventually become friends: Jane has a secret, you see, and when that secret is revealed Emma feels that she understands and can forgive her previous reticence; Jane, in turn, is freed from the restraint that left her unable to engage with Emma frankly and openly.
So what lessons are there here for Lucy and me?
Clearly this woman has a secret she isn’t telling. I need to get her to open up. I need to get her to trust me. The question is: how to do it?
I’ve already told her I know about her past. It didn’t help. She just looked at me, as if saying, “You might think you know…” So perhaps I’ll have to start small. Maybe I can get her to tell me what her favourite film is, or whether she prefers tea or coffee, baths or showers, Fitzwilliam Darcy or Christian Grey.
Perhaps that will do the trick. But I can’t help thinking: isn’t it a shame you can’t just take your imaginary character to the pub?