I’ve spent the last week doing something I should have done two years ago; writing my heroine’s backstory.
I wrote my hero’s back story within weeks of conceiving my story, doing him the honour of a 3,000 word novella. Even a sub-hero got 1,000 words about where he went school and how he lost his virginity. But, poor Charlotte; nothing! I thought I knew her and so I muddled along, making clumsy assumptions and resorting to every Suffragette cliché in the book. And it seemed to be going so well – until, well, two weeks ago.
I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about Charlotte. I like her (well, eventually, in Part 3) and I empathise with her (by Part 2, certainly) but, until this week, I didn’t understand her. I could make her do anything – have a breakdown, fall in love, be amazingly brave – but I didn’t know why she was so dramatically obliging.
Then I had a Damascene moment, on the top deck of a north London bus. I saw a sign to Holloway and although I know there is no longer a prison of that name the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I thought about Charlotte making that journey in the back of a prison van a year before my story starts. I had glibly assumed that she was forcibly fed in Holloway (such is the lure of the suffragette mythology) but, sitting on my bus I wondered; was she? Only a minority of suffragettes were forcibly fed – so why Charlotte? How did she react? Was she frozen with terror, stoically brave or did she fight like a she-devil? What physical injuries did she suffer and what did it do to her mind; the anticipation, the restraint, the degradation?
In fact, now we’re asking awkward questions, why did she even become a suffragette? Was she mesmerised by the Pankhursts (as many women were), distressed by the plight of working class women, frustrated by the limited opportunities for educated women, or outraged by the sexual subjugation of all women? What was it in her childhood, her schooldays, her time in Oxford that set her on the path to militancy and dropped her, spitting and kicking, into the opening scene of my novel?
In the end I wrote 5,000 words; a rambling, ungrammatical splurge of words, from the place of her birth (yes, it matters!) and on down through the years and across the world, skimming over some bits, lingering on episodes that I know have repercussions later and fussing over real-life dates and events.
Most strands of Charlotte’s life dove-tail nicely into my existing story but a few inconvenient truths have arisen and a dozen questions need answers – so it’s back to the drawing board for a couple of chapters. The astonishing thing is that out of my 5,000 words, I will probably use less than 50 in my story. The rest will never be made explicit – but that doesn’t matter. Charlotte is now in my head – a clever, passionate, rather self-centred woman – and she will inform my story in a thousand subtle ways that nobody else will notice but I trust will add to the richness and authenticity of the whole.