When a character just won’t let you go.
I’ve been considering this a lot recently. I’ve just completed book 8 in my DCI Dani Bevan series and with each new instalment I have to decide if it will be her last.
So I’m always fascinated when I hear other writers discussing the right time to end a long-running series, particularly a popular one with readers. I was impressed to read recently that despite its incredible success, Sally Wainwright will only pen one further series of Happy Valley. And even then, she won’t be releasing the script for some time, as she wants one of the characters to be older, as it fits with the way she feels the story is going.
Wainwright did much the same with popular ITV drama series Scott and Bailey, which was wound up in its fourth instalment earlier this year. With television production being so risk averse, this is a bold move for a scriptwriter. But Wainwright appears to remain true to the story and to the integrity of her writing.
Watching BBC2’s excellent documentary about the life of novelist Sue Townsend last night on catch-up, highlighted for me a situation that was quite the reverse. It seems that Townsend’s most popular character, Adrian Mole, whose Diary of 1980, gave the writer her first real break, proved reluctant to let his creator go.
After The Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 came its follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. What I hadn’t realised was that Townsend had written a number of later books exploring Adrian’s life. She commented in interviews that every few years Mole’s voice would begin to speak to her again and she knew he had more to say to the world. This would trigger a new book.
I found this concept intriguing and also recognisable. Sometimes your characters do feel as if they have more to share. A few months after completing a book, you will hear that inner voice nagging at you once again. A new story will inevitably follow.
I wondered how many other authors experienced a similar phenomenon. I make no secret of believing that literary characters take on a life of their own and almost appear to ‘write themselves’ at certain stages of the novel production process.
Sue Townsend’s extraordinary life had many fascinating aspects to interest both writers and readers alike. It turned out that Townsend had witnessed a notorious murder when she was only 8 years old. She claimed this had forced her to ‘turn in on herself’ and escape into a world of fiction. Townsend suggested that many authors had been driven to pursue an active inner life because of a similar trauma in their lives. I wonder if that’s true.
I think the undisputed success of serialised novels indicates that very often for a reader and a writer, a character or set of characters refuses to let us go.
When should we finally say goodbye? There are no easy answers. In Sue Townsend’s case, she clearly never did.