Characters Are Onions

I’ve recently re-joined my local writer’s group and have been inspired by how motivated and encouraging the members are. Some write the most amazing poetry, others are attempting novels and many contribute to magazines.  See
The meeting has motivated me in many ways, not least of which in my attempt to write fiction every day.  However this week I’ve been sick with an icky bug and in an attempt to at least appear busy, I’ve been reading instead.
Not being in the mood for anything too heavy, I started off with the latest Marian Keyes novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky. 
Using a somewhat mystic narrator, the plot takes us deep undercover in to the interwoven lives of the inhabitants of a Dublin apartment building.   
The variety of characters keeps the reader’s constant interest; a PR music industry executive who meets a cut throat financial whizz, a spiky, desperate taxi driver flying by the seat of her pants.  Then there’s the comical Polish duo, the up and coming television garden show star, and the pair at the centre of all these antics, an ordinary married couple struggling to make sense of life.
What impressed me most about this work is the efficient and manipulative way Keyes drip feeds information to the reader.  She is so skilful at developing characters that even when you are aware of her talent and looking for clues, she still manages to surprise you.  Layer upon layer, the characters develop, grow and connect in the haphazard manner of all big city neighbours who know each other – but don’t really know each other.
Bringing all these lives together in a non-cliché and credible way, Keyes somehow manages to sum it all up without a cringe factor, while still imparting some fairly important information about the nature of depression and human relationships.
What has this book taught me about my own writing? 
To invest in the back stories of my characters.
Know what happened to your character before they enter the world you’ve created.  Way before.  
Know how their present state of mind has come to be.  What sort of people have they met and trusted or distrusted?  What experiences, good or bad, have brought them to view the world the way they do? How has their family influenced them?  Has a traumatic event changed their outlook on life?  Or have their attitudes been formed over time, layer upon layer.
We may not use every little detail we create with this process, but knowing the back story adds a depth and insight which enriches the reading experience.
For more information about Marian Keyes visit

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