How Rowan Coleman makes her characters so realistic
“I'm terribly nosy,” admits Rowan Coleman with a giggle. “I am very interested in people: what makes them tick, and their motivations: why people do, think, act and say what they do. I am really interested in how they interact. For me that's the heart of a book.” Which might explain why Rowan's readers find her characters so realistic.
Rowan Coleman worked in bookselling and publishing for seven years before winning Company Magazine Young Writer of the Year in 2000. Since then she has had eight books for women published, including 'The Accidental Mother,' The Accidental Wife' and 'The Baby Group'. She has also had published five books in the Ruby Parker books - a series about a 13 year old girl who happens to be famous. Rowan's first paranormal adventure for teens, 'Nearly Departed' was also published in 2010, written under the name Rook Hastings and has just been selected for the Manchester Book Awards.
Rowan describes her books as character driven, and she puts a lot of time and thought into creating her characters. “Obviously plot is important, but I think if you don't have fully fleshed, three- dimensional characters, then nothing works as well as it should do,” she says. “The characters come from an amalgamation of things I might see on a train or at a bus stop.” Although some of her characters might have been used before. “The character in Happy Homes (her most recent novel) was originally in a short story I wrote for Woman & Home, and I thought she had a lot of potential so I wrote a whole novel around her.”
To start with, Rowan spends several months thinking about her characters. Then she writes a biography for them. “I write down their secret longings, their quirks and flaws, and do that for each main character and it's quite exciting – the further in you get. From the four or five main characters, other characters and plot ideas will be generated. It's like the building blocks for the book,” she explains.
Rowan doesn't have a series of questions but she needs to know how old the characters are, their family background and what they look like, and this comes at the planning stage. “I physically base my characters on people I've seen or know. The character I'm writing about now looks exactly like Keira Knightley – I can't help it, that's just how she looks.” She laughs. “I hope it's positive thinking and it'll be made into a film!”
But it's not just how they look. “Their voices are very clear. The rhythm and tone – and they speak even when you don't want them to, like in the middle of the night.” She pauses and sounds almost apologetic. “If you don't write, I think a lot of people find that difficult to get their heads around. For most writers it's the same: you have these weird personalities in your head that are very real, living breathing people and it's quite hard to talk about that in case people think you need medication!”
Next step, Rowan writes her biographies in a notebook. “I'm dyslexic and the connection between head and hand works better if I hand write it – it comes to about 5 pages per character.” But once she's written that down she tends not to need to refer to her notes again.
The past is always important to Rowan's characters. “My books usually take place over two or three months and always what's gone before is crucial to what is happening now,” she explains. “The book I'm writing now, the childhood and early teens is very significant to the character and the plot.”
Knowing when characters are ready to write about can be difficult, but Rowan is intuitive about hers. “It's when they become independent people, living and breathing,” she says. “When you don't have to think about what they say or how they behave.” Getting to this stage takes Rowan two or three months, but then she will write the entire book (about 100,000 words) in the next two or three months.
Until recently, Rowan only ever showed her work to her agent and editor, but the arrival of another writer friend has changed all that. “We've started an ideas club,” she explains. “We meet every 2-3 weeks and bounce ideas off each other, with the strict understanding that we take only our own ideas away and it's strictly confidential.” She laughs. “You know what writers are like.” This, she finds, helps her see things she hadn't thought of. “I find it really useful: we talk about plot and characters and it gives you a fresh eye.”
Conflict is obviously important in a novel, but something that Rowan finds difficult. “I find it hard to put my characters in terrible situations because normally I really like them,” she says. Even so, she puts her characters through “a heavy helping of real life and real situations” such as rape, murder, drugs, alcoholism and domestic violence. “It makes it more interesting to write: it's more like real life,” she adds. “For me a good story is one the reader falls into, is part of, doesn't want to put down and feels sad when it's finished.”
Feedback from her readers clearly validates what Rowan does. “My biggest thrill is when someone says they identify with one of the characters,” she says. “That to me is the pleasure of writing. I've had loads of brilliant feedback on Facebook and Twitter – they like believable characters that they can relate to, they like the romance, they like the humour.”
She has also found out what some of her readers don't like. “I've been told off because most of my characters are deeply flawed and some readers don't like that. And I very rarely write a neat and tidy ending – there's always ends left untied and some readers don't like that.” She pauses. “I don't think you necessarily have to write for other people – it could be just as valid not to, but I definitely write for other people. That's always in my mind when I'm writing.”
Meanwhile Rowan has a busy time ahead. When we spoke, she was busily planning her wedding in three weeks' time, and is writing another novel for adults. “Then I think I'll tackle something for young adults – I think there's a gap in the market for something that hasn't got vampires in!”
But a busy life obviously suits Rowan. “Writing is just my absolute joy,” she says. “When everything's flowing, I don't think there's a better feeling in the world.”
Happy Home for Broken Hearts is published by Simon & Schuster in August 2010
Immortal Remains is published by Harper Collins in September 2010
Writers' Forum 2010