Jo Walton’s “Or What You Will,” and how to make up people

This is not a formal “book review,” but I wanted to call everyone’s attention to Jo Walton’s newest novel, Or What You Will, which I read recently with great delight. I think it would be a good read for many; I know it’s wonderful for writers. I’ve admired Walton for a long while, though I still haven’t read nearly all of her books; one thing I love about her novels is how different they all are, from the comedy of manners with dragons (one of those I haven’t read yet), to the detective fiction trilogy set in an alternative 1960s Britain where the Nazis won, to another trilogy about Greek philosophy, to My Real Children, in which an elderly woman with dementia appears to have lived two lives and can’t tell which is real. The best part of that book to me is that Patricia, the main character, has lived through two versions of recent history and neither of them is ours. Literary fiction/alternative family history, going above and beyond. And by the way, you’ll find most of these works shelved under fantasy or science fiction, because the genre-bound don’t know what to do with them, but with a few exceptions they just invent their own genres and the hell with it. I’ll drink to that.

I don’t want to spoil Or What You Will so I’ll just say that it’s about a muse, or an imaginary friend who becomes a muse to a writer who bears some resemblance to Walton herself. He has inhabited characters in many of her books; a lot of the action is a revisit to a world that she invented in which his character played a pivotal role, and the power of the writing is such that you almost believe you’ve read the previous books in that series. The story draws you in so that you want to find out what happens to the characters; yes, so far like all other good books, but this story is also about how books themselves are made, how writing happens, how characters develop and become their own people. Aside from that I’ll just say that it has removed any urge I had toward turning Book Six into a series of references to The Tempest, since Walton’s clever merging of that play with Twelfth Night satisfies my need for Shakespearean allusion for the moment. (Okay, Olivia has to say “The isle is full of noises” at some point, but that will do it for me.)

John William Waterhouse’s Miranda, looking a lot like Camilla Armitage. Walton’s Miranda is not at all like this!

Even before reading Or What You Will I was musing about the process of creating characters, since I’m having to do it again. In Book Six, yes; you would think I’d have enough of them by now. Point-of-view characters, yet, which is a deeper undertaking than inventing someone who’s only seen from the outside, though alike in many ways. In previous books I’ve burrowed into the heads of characters who already existed but hadn’t had the POV treatment (I guess that would be George in Time and Fevers, Beatrice and Andy in Time Goes By, Janet in Not Time’s Fool, and Rinaldo and Charles in The Seed Time). This time around, although there are plenty of familiar headspaces to visit, I’ve also jumped in Chapter One right into the POV of Neil Park. Remember Neil? I will forgive you if you don’t. He’s an employee of Constantine and Associates who’s been referred to multiple times but has never actually appeared in a scene. He makes his debut looking at the horizon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thinking about boats and detective novels.

Which does have something to do with how I invent characters. I don’t base characters on people I know or on myself, but I do find it helps to have a hook into every character, some personal trait or preoccupation that I share with them. Sometimes that’s something very general like shyness or dislike of confrontation or a tendency to wallow in unfair resentment; sometimes it’s small and extremely specific. One of the first times I noticed myself doing this was on the first appearance of Camilla Armitage in Time for Tea; she comes in on a slammed door, soaking wet and glorying in wind and rain. I have very little in common with Camilla overall, but when I was a teenager I used to go out in storms and ignore unpleasantness in favor of romance. I can still remember what that was like; I just have more sense now.

Characters are created to serve narrative purposes; it’s only after they fit themselves into the story that they become their own people. Well, usually. The hook referred to above is part of that process, but it doesn’t necessarily grab harder when I’ve decided that a character is going to share their POV with the reader. It’s just a useful shortcut, and not the same as “getting into the head” of someone who’s helping me tell my story. Or their story. Whichever it is. That is magic, and hard intellectual and emotional work, and luck.

Neil and I have the Golden Age mystery obsession in common (well, he’s probably more obsessed than I am, but that’s all to the good), and that could just be an unimportant character trait, but it seems like it’s going to be more. He’s going to end up doing some detective work, into the life of another character whose head I’m delving into for the first time. (I get to do his life in stages from childhood onward. At the moment I’m thinking out a scene in which he’s a teenager, and oh yikes.) Neil only has a portion of this book to do his thing, but it’s good that he likes to go straight at stuff and figure it out, because the other characters are suffering a lot and having disease symptoms and self-pity. Someone will have to give them a kick in their collective asses. Aha, narrative purpose.

And meanwhile I am rereading all the Campion books, and having great fun.

Anyway, I could talk about character creation all day, and will happily do so with other writers, but everyone else’s eyes glaze over after a bit, so I’ll stop.

Here is a stray cat we are feeding and maybe slowly making friends with, though it still runs away when we get too close.


There are characters like that, too, though I hope not to encounter any of them this time around.

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