Writing from the Dark Side: Jane Lythell talks about the flawed characters in her novels
Jane and I belong to the same group of authors – the Beach Hut Writers – and, although we’ve met before, we really got talking when we shared a table at the office christmas do. (That’s a bit of an insider joke. There is no office. We all work from home and miss the banter and gossip that is part of everyday life when you work for a large company. There are a lot of things we don’t miss though and I haven’t heard anyone say they want to quit and go back to a proper job.) As luck would have it, I got Jane’s first novel in our Secret Santa (we all gave copies of our own books) and I am really looking forward to reading her second AFTER THE STORM – the paperback version comes out today. Over to Jane…
I’m interested in the dark side of people and what makes them do extreme things. I think we all have a dark side which we hide from the world, and often, from ourselves. My first novel THE LIE OF YOU explores jealousy that deepens into full blown obsession. My second novel AFTER THE STORM also has a character in the grip of psychological trauma. My aim is to write character driven stories and to let the plot develop from how each character would react to circumstances given their history and their psychology.
AFTER THE STORM opens in Belize City and then moves to an island in the Caribbean called Roatan. An English couple, Rob and Anna, have just met an American couple Owen and Kim who have a handsome old boat. Owen suggests they charter his boat and he will take them to Roatan, where the diving is sensational. Anna does not want to go at all, but Rob is really keen and he persuades her. Unknown to them Kim is desperate to go home to Florida. It is Owen who is determined to continue their life on the boat. So straightaway we have conflict of wishes between the four characters and a boat can be a very claustrophobic place when tensions start to build.
They set off. With only the four of them on board it should be paradise: afternoons spent snorkelling; nights enjoying the silence and solitude of the sea. But why does Owen never sleep? Why is he so secretive about his past? And why does Kim keep a knife zipped into her money-belt? They arrive in Roatan and not all is what it seems. Anna, who is a speech therapist, can usually get people to talk, but this time does she want to?
I’ve been to Roatan and felt it would make a great setting for a novel. It is beautiful but also has a kind of frontier feeling where the normal rules don’t seem to apply. I drew on a journal I kept when I was there and my many photos to help me create the atmosphere of the island.
THE LIE OF YOU has had over a hundred and twenty reviews and I want to take this opportunity to thank readers for taking the time to write them. Reviews are pure gold for a debut writer and one of the points that emerged was a difference of opinion about whether or not to sympathise with the character Heja by the end of the book. This definitely divided people. I am looking forward to hearing what readers make of the four characters in AFTER THE STORM because you do become attached to your characters.
My writing tips
It’s all about creating characters that readers will believe in. I think about what food they would eat, what home they would live in and what single thing they fear most in life. You don’t have to put this in but it will help make them real to you as you write them.
Don’t worry if your characters are flawed or have some nasty sides to them. Flawed people are interesting. It doesn’t matter if your readers dislike them or adore them. But it does matter if they don’t believe in them.
Your first draft is just that – a first draft. You only get one chance with a publisher so take the time to edit again and again. You need to get your book into as perfect a form as possible before submitting.
Show your drafts to people you respect. I asked two close friends and my partner, who is a TV writer, to give me some frank and honest feedback. You can only learn from that and their comments helped me so much.
I find it helps me to write standing up! I’ve rigged up my laptop to be the right height and it certainly makes me feel more alert.
A bit about Jane
I live in Brighton and I’m a sea-lover, star-gazer, film and football fan. My background is journalistic writing and television production. I was a producer at TV-am and commissioning editor at Westcountry Television. I left to become deputy director of the British Film Institute and later chief executive of BAFTA before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I now write full time.