Writing a main character for a novel is a lot of fun. I enjoy thinking about all aspects of a character, even details I won’t later use in the book. I don’t go as far as plotting out a whole spider diagram of a character’s physical appearance and personality, but I like to think them through as if they were someone I know in real life and I do tend to jot down notes about what they do for a living and where they come from. Let’s take a look at Kimberly Thatcher, the protagonist in my second novel, The Buddha’s Bone. Kimberly was a character I enjoyed writing and I had to do quite a lot of research to make sure she was as fully fleshed-out as possible.
Kimberly has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. Throughout The Buddha’s Bone, she finds herself applying her knowledge to herself. In order to accurately portray this, I had to do much research. Recently a reader, who happens to be a qualified Psychotherapist, told me that she loved that I had used details of specific terminology in my novel. You can imagine how thrilled I was to hear this. My own university degree is Archaeology and Palaeoecology; I’m not a Clinical Psychologist, so it made me happy to know this aspect rang true.
I decided to write Kimberly as tall and blonde to exacerbate her sense of culture shock and disorientation. In her home back in London, she was used to blending in with her peers. In her new home in Japan, more than anything, Kimberly wanted to fit in and develop a sense of belonging. Instead she felt different and found that she was more self-conscious, which contributed to her vulnerability; particularly later in the story when things take a darker turn.
Writing Kimberly’s poetry was a challenge, despite the fact that I am a poet myself. I had to put myself in her shoes in order to write in her voice. A reviewer of The Buddha’s Bone wondered whether Kimberly Thatcher’s poems were actually Leilanie Stewart’s poems that I had written while I was living and working in Japan as an English teacher myself. The answer is no: as the author, of course Kimberly is an invention that I created and in that respect, I wrote the poems for the book. However, the poetry is all original and written specifically for this novel: I didn’t write them during my time living in Japan.
Making Kimberly from a big city such as London provided a strong contrast with her new life in a small town such as Tottori. It really helped to show how out of her depth she was. In the rural setting in Japan, Kimberly found that most people didn’t speak English and without being able to speak Japanese, this compounded her feeling of isolation; at least for the first part of her story in Japan.
Kimberly’s job in Japan
While the day to day details of Kimberly’s work as a teacher were fictional, I used my own experience of living and working in Japan for four years as a background to the events that happen. Unlike Kimberly in the story, I learned Japanese while I lived there and took Level 3 of the Japanese Proficiency test at Kobe University. For the purposes of my novel, I wanted the language barrier to really amplify the daily build up of insecurity that Kimberly experienced, leading to the events that later happened to her (no spoilers!)
I really think that having a fully developed main character is central to building a solid story. I’ve learned during my own writing journey that it isn’t a waste of time to have lots of background information on a protagonist, even if most of that doesn’t make it into the published novel. Those invisible details still add to the authenticity and consistency of a main character’s motivations and personal journey, which is worth the effort, in my opinion.