Forgetting your characters?

Surely not?

Picture me at a writers’ conference, a good two years before I published INCEPTIO, the first of the Roma Nova thrillers, in 2013. Full of enthusiasm, going to every class, talk, workshop and seminar followed by long nights in the bar discussing structure, characters, pitfalls, agents, heroes, failures and successes, I was exhausted by Sunday morning.

I shuffled up to the coffee machine, chose two slugs of espresso in one mug, dolloped a load of fruit in a bowl in hope of regaining lost vitamins and made my way to a table with a single figure. She was a multi-published author, somebody I respected, no, revered. When she invited me to sit, I felt honoured. But no way was I up to sparkling conversation.

As I munched on my fruit, the Experienced Author kindly asked me how things were going.  Before I could answer, my rather more abstemious and thus more energetic friend plonked herself down at the table.  She said we’d enjoyed the workshop on character, but was rather disturbed by the speaker saying it was easy to forget who was who in earlier books she’d written. That woke me up.

Surely, you wouldn’t forget one of your beautiful creations,’ I said, my fruit consumed.

Well, it does happen,’ replied Experienced Author.

We two newbies stared at her, our mouths not open, but silent. ‘After fifteen books, in three different genres, I can’t remember each character. They fall in love, struggle with tragedy, rebuild their fortunes, find happiness, and then you send them off to be published and as in life, you turn to new ones.’

Appalled at such cynicism, my friend and I exchanged what Georgette Heyer would have called ‘a speaking look’.  Both of us were rock solid in the confident knowledge that this would never happen to either of us. Our profound knowledge and deep love of all our characters, principal and secondary, ensured they were graven on our souls. We politely finished our breakfast and took no notice of the little smile on the Experienced Author’s lips.

I slaved over my first book, INCEPTIO, going through manuscript assessments, beta readers, mentor and professional editors, and generally whipping it into shape for publication.  Two years on from that breakfast chat with the Experienced Author I was even more involved with my characters, especially the two leads, Carina and Conrad. I could not only see them, I dreamed about them. I spoke about them at the launch of INCEPTIO and even infected my friends with them. Well, they queued up to buy the book in droves that night.

The following October, the second book I wrote in the Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS, launched and if possible, my knowledge increased. I could do Mastermind on Carina and Conrad and probably the same on the elder stateswoman Aurelia who was then a secondary character.  By the third book, SUCCESSIO, a year later, I was spreading the dramatis personae to include the next generation, so had to check the odd thing here and there.

With AURELIA, I took the main secondary character of the first three books back to her young womanhood in the late 1960s. Soon I was immersed in the pre-internet, rather sexist world. Carina and Conrad of the 21st century were fading as I plunged into one of the darkest periods of Roma Nova’s history with a tale of crime and derring-do.

Then a reader asked me a question about a character in PERFIDITAS and I said ‘Who?’ She reminded me in a cold voice about who they were and added that the character was her favourite.  Oh, crap! I bluffed through it, but that breakfast meeting in 2011 came immediately to mind. Five years on, I bowed to that Experienced Author in true humility.

The (humbling) remedy

I re-read the first three Roma Nova thrillers. It was the least I could do. Actually, I really enjoyed reconnecting with Carina, Conrad and all the other characters. Did I really write these thrillers? By the time I came to write INSURRECTIO, RETALIO  and the two novellas, CARINA and NEXUS, I knew what I had to do. Series fans would never forgive me if I messed up on the continuity. As a reader, this kind of error shows me the writer doesn’t take a professional approach to their work.

The lesson learnt

When I went back to the Roma Nova origin story and was drafting JULIA PRIMA, the first foundation story set in the late fourth century, I re-read the whole series to date – six full-length novels, two novellas and a book of short stories. Confession time: i actually made notes of the text and context of whenever those distant ancestors were mentioned.

Spreadsheets for the characters, especially their ages, their relationships, events and pivotal decisions litter my Roma Nova documents folder on my computer. I have a time line grid (index) for each book so I have an easy reference for the actions and decisions in each book. Although mistakes happen and typos creep in despite the sets of eyes on the text, I know as a writer that I owe it to my readers to craft the books with care.

More than anything, I have abandoned hubris and now have a little more humility.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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