25 August 2023
Romantic novelist Fiona Walker writes about creating a cast of characters with appeal for a digital age
I’ve been writing multiple generations for three decades. Each ensuing book or series introduces a fresh cast, those generations renewing. The children from my first novels would now be in their thir-ties, my lovelorn young heroines menopausal, their party-loving middle-aged parents octogenarians.
As I’ve shifted up the age ranks, my perspective has changed. When I started out, I was the wild-child heroine. Now I’m her mother’s generation, and I hope my wiser eyes are kind ones.
My writing career has spanned the leap from analogue to digital, altering the world my characters inhabit enormously. To keep them believable and relevant, I’ve made some changes to the way I write.
In contemporary fiction, there’s no getting away from high tech. Mobile phones were the size of house bricks when I started, dial-up internet in its infancy. Now 4G and fast fibre is ubiquitous. My younger characters are all digital natives. Keeping their secrets is far harder.
For romantic comedies, the internet is a passion-killer. A smartphone can feel like an extra character, an all-knowing Sherlock Homes super-sleuth or a sci-fi computer. Heroines in my first books paced around landlines waiting for the object of their affection to ring; these days they just stalk their social feeds. Googling that tall, dark handsome stranger’s name denies us all the slow, mysterious dawning of discovery.
While it’s no coincidence my characters often break or lose their phones for dramatic advantage - or live in a not-spot - incorporating tech into the action is also important. How characters react to it is revealing. As in real life, it’s dull being with somebody who just stares at their phone all the time. The ones who cast them aside inevitably excite readers more.
Each generation has their unique call codes – from Boomers’ ‘pulling your leg’, through Millennials ‘banter’ to Gen Z’s ‘just for jokes’. It pays to get the details right. Endearments change between generations, one’s ‘darling’ is another’s ‘bae’, as with ‘man’ and ‘mate’. Subtlety is important.
For believable dialogue, it makes characters pop out. The teenagers in my first novel spoke like Beavis and Butthead, something no self-respecting teen would today, no cap.
When writing generations removed from my own, I research what music they listen to, their messaging shorthand, their streaming favourites. Knowing people who are that age really helps, because there’s nothing like first-hand acquaintance to bring their true voices to the page.
A diverse cast rightfully reflects our world and making it ring true is vital. My recent English countryside settings might be less cosmopolitan than the London landscapes of my early novels, but it’s no less rich a community tapestry, and full of difference.
The industry-wide cry for authenticity and lived experience has made me ever more mindful who I write and what role they fulfil. I only take a character’s perspective if I believe I can see through their eyes in a way the reader will trust. I also try to avoid caricature, even in the larkiest romantic comedies.
I approach other generations with more care than ever, particularly younger ones. Just because we’ve been there once doesn’t mean we understand what it’s like now. I read lots of books written by younger writers, their journalism and blogs, and I quiz my children and their friends endlessly.
Years ago, taking a still life drawing class, the best lesson I was ever taught was ‘it’s the gaps between objects that makes a picture authentic’. By the same token, it’s the gaps between characters that makes them come alive. And generation gaps are a wonderful place to start, now more than ever.
If you’ve never lived in someone’s shoes, tread carefully as I’ve already discovered…
When first starting out, I was guilty of depicting older characters as white-haired dinosaurs, revelling in their eccentricities. One father in my debut novel just chews on a pipe and says ‘bloody’ repeatedly for 700-plus pages. Looking back, he is the age I am now.
With fictional families - particularly in romantic comedy - anyone over forty can all-too easily be reduced to parent, grandparent or wise elder, acting as conduits for nostalgia or comedy. Yet we have a far more active, switched-on and playful senior generation than ever before, and drawing imaginatively on that livens up narratives enormously. It’s as naïve to assume older people aren’t digital as it is to assume they’re not sexual. In my recent trilogy, its heroines are a mother and daughter, both falling in and out of love a generation apart with as many parallels as differences.
Modern character-led fiction might now have smartphones, sensitivity readers and sexy seniors, but these are tiny shifts for an artform that remains amongst the most timeless. To bring them alive, the most important trick of all is to believe in them whole-heartedly. If you get to grow old alongside them, then count yourself very lucky. I certainly do.
Fiona Walker’s latest book Country Secrets is published by Aria
Wondering about writing in and for the digital age? Read what Antony Johnson has to say about the benefits of mixed media for your writing.