Wise words from John Le Carré


John Le Carré says: ‘You can’t actually make a character without putting something of yourself into each one. Smiley will always be that bit older and wiser than me.’

And: ‘I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it.’

What an interesting observation! I can use that thought somewhere in my own story. This will trigger something good.

I put a whole lot of myself into my characters, especially my neurotic tendencies. And, my dysfunctional family history. I have to laugh when I read about writers making up charts for their characters, likes and dislikes, hair color, all that. I know my guys as well as I know myself.

OK, the down side of this is, an editor told me, ‘Your characters all sound like each other, and they all sound like you.’ I’ve tried to correct that, but, here’s the thing: Almost all my characters are operators, con artists to one degree or another. They’re all up to something. And the ruffians all present a false front. Therefore, aside from the kids, I have some leeway with the kids, they are all well-spoken. I suppose they could lapse into their natural usage in private, but that would be even more confusing. I’m trying to make my voices more distinct. I refuse to resort to accents. Accents, if not well and sparingly done, are hokey as hell.

As for eye color, etc., I give little physical description in my story. I am more interested in who my fools are than in what they look like. I’m trying to add in more physical also. Perhaps describing my bake shop cutie as a moist little muffin isn’t quite enough.

Now, I get that some stories are plot-driven. Spy stories certainly fall into this category. But from Le Carré’s comment, I would guess that he has endowed his hero with more than usual (for a thriller) humanity, and I would also guess (haven’t read him) that this has played a large part in his magnificent success.

I believe in writing a character alive, then turning him loose. My people don’t dance to my tune, I dance to theirs. That gets tricky. It’s not an approach I recommend. But it’s the way I think. Non-linear, to an extreme.

At any rate, to find it difficult to remember happiness. There would be many-many reasons for that. I could build a whole book around that idea.

Maybe I already have.


10 thoughts on “Wise words from John Le Carré

  1. Perry Palin says:

    The characters are the story.

    I read a short story at a writers group once when one comment was, “Your two characters are too much alike.” Well, that was the point. They were supposed to be alike, but they fell into different circumstances and ended differently. If the commenter didn’t see that, then I failed her somehow, or maybe she wasn’t a good listener.

    No character charts for me. My characters do what they have to do, or what they want to do, or what they naturally do. I have books on the Meyers-Briggs personality types. But following the Meyers-Briggs recipes too closely will, I’m afraid, give us two dimensional, too predictable actors. Interesting characters seem to break out of their personality types, and by the end of the story we hope to know their reasons.

    My short stories have by necessity small casts. My (yet to be published) novel has a big crowd of characters, and it was fun to set them all spinning. I hope a reader will see that they are designed to spin at different speeds, and some will wobble, and some tip and fall.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    I’m a fan of the Meyers-Briggs. My partner was qualified to administered it back when we owned a career counseling firm. Amazing! But I agree, Perry. Characters are more complex than personality types.

    Like Mimi, I allow my characters to evolve with the adventure. Guess I’m more in sync with Joseph Campbell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perry Palin says:

      The Meyers-Briggs instrument puts each of us in any one of 16 boxes. It also measures the strengths of the tendencies that put us there. I am an INTJ, and an off-the-chart strong I. When I had a day job I used Meyers-Briggs typing with teams to help employees understand one another, and to work to their strengths.

      A book on my shelf coaches the use of Meyers-Briggs type descriptors to construct characters. I’m afraid this will miss those secondary tendencies, motivations, and conflicts that give people, and characters, a lot of their interest.


      • mimispeike says:

        I am no fan of formulas, nor of worked-out dynamics. Maybe a twenty-year-old needs help with character complexity. At seventy, I don’t think so.

        Hold the phone! All my characters are malcontents. Where’s the complexity in that? Ah! They’re delicious malcontents, each a damaged soul in his own amusing way.

        Especially my frog, who’s certain he’s an enchanted prince. His mother screwed him up but good.

        Liked by 1 person

        • atthysgage says:

          This is entirely off the subject, Mimi, but I just heard tell of a collection by Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber. It’s a series of retellings of classic fairy tales, and a lot of reviewes (including Neil Gaiman) considered it brilliant and groudbreaking. I haven’t read it, so I can’t opine, but it does include a version of Puss in Boots with the cat as a con man, so naturally, I thought of you.

          Liked by 1 person

          • mimispeike says:

            Thanks, Atthys. I am going to look for it on Amazon.

            This is interesting. First published in 1990, reprinted many times. What caught my eye immediately? The name Neil Gaiman.

            Are you calling me a con man? I don’t blame you. I feel like one.

            Liked by 1 person

            • atthysgage says:

              That’s funny. Pardon the dangling modifier, but of course I was thinking of your feline hero. I don’t know whether HE is a con man either, but I can’t say I’d trust him to delver my order of tuna fish intact.

              The book looks interesting and yes, it’s been around awhile.


              • atthysgage says:

                Besides, aren’t all writers confidence artists at their core? Making folks believe in unreal worlds, causing them to invest in totally fictional situations, preying on their compassion with phony sympathetic characters?

                The only place the analogy falls apart is that most writers never make a dime off of their ridiculous scams.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. mimispeike says:

    My cat’s not the con-man. I’m the con-man, telling everyone I can make this work, I’m gonna make it work.

    My cat’s the know-it-all of all time, and completely sincere about it.

    That’s a lot more fun to write than a dime-a-dozen con-man.


  4. mimispeike says:

    I’m reading down through the book blurbs on Facebook and laughing my head off. I’ve started a piece titled Are These People Serious? But it won’t be ready for Monday.

    Rich material here, tons of it. This is like mocking Trump by using his words verbatim. So easy to do!

    Should I be bad? Hard to resist. Lines here to die for.

    Maybe I’ll marry the best bits from all of them, create one killer all-purpose blurb. Use it for free, you romance-maniacs, my compliments. Just plug in the names of your star-crossed principals and you’re good to go.

    Liked by 1 person

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