Often times the best inspiration comes within us. How do you flesh out your characters to drive the plot?
How do I flesh out my characters to drive my plots? I could answer this very simply, by saying inspiration, of course, is the key to all my writing, but to answer this truthfully, I must talk about the real key unlocking this inspiration, a story beginning on the day of my tenth birthday. That day, a school friend gave me a child’s book of English history and changed my life forever. At ten, I desperately needed a hero, a guiding light to help me navigate through those difficult growing up years. Because of a chapter in this book, Elizabeth I became my first hero; my search to know more about her introduced me to my second hero, her mother, Anne Boleyn. They both gave me examples of strong and determined women – women who claimed their voices and true identities in a time when women were told to be silent and remember their inferiority.
As a child and teenager, I was also told to be silent and that my worth did not equal that of the males in my world. I was told it was a waste of time to educate girls. Learning about Anne and Elizabeth taught me otherwise. Their stories were the beginning of my understanding that I was not the one at fault, but my world – a world where I learned not only to navigate my ‘woman’s life’ but also one mapped out by patriarchy.
My interest in Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn soon grew to embrace the whole Tudor period, and grew into a passion turning me into a writer. I not only hold Elizabeth and Anne responsible for my two Anne Boleyn novels (Dear Heart, How Like You This? and The Light in the Labyrinth), Falling Pomegranate Seeds: Duty of Daughters, the first book my Katherine of Aragon trilogy, a novel I hope to see published this year, but also my doctorate.
While my novels are shaped through vast research, I am first and foremost a writer of fiction. My stories are initially ignited by research and then imagined, or dreamed, onto the page. This ‘dreaming’ draws from the compost of my own life experience, which makes me empathise with my characters, especially that of my female characters; this empathy helps me flesh them out. My human experience, faced as a woman, is one common to all humanity: I have experienced rejection, sorrow, love. I have also known what is to hate, but if there is one thing my life has taught me, it is hate gets us nowhere. Writing has been a wonderful tool to help me let go of hate. I don’t even hate Henry VIII. One of the reasons I revisited Anne Boleyn’s story in The Light in the Labyrinth was because I wanted to be more fair to him. I don’t like him, but I don’t hate him; writing Kate Carey’s story helped me to pity him.
I once heard the very lovely and talented Australian author Sophie Masson say, ‘A writer is a lifelong learner’. How true that is; writers learn from observing and thinking about their world. When we write, our thinking goes to another, far, far deeper level. This deep place is where magic happens, through the writer’s engagement with imagination – a magic that builds a bridge between the writer and the reader. But it is more than this. Every time I embark on a new, novel writing adventure, I rediscover the truth of Kundera’s claim that creating a novel ignites a catalyst for change (2006).
For me, this catalyst of change not only happens through the practice of writing, but also through engagement with stories of women from long ago. It is by telling these stories, I realize, yet again, what being a feminist is all about – and how all my writing comes from my standpoint as a woman. Reclaiming the voices of women of the past illuminates for me that the battle for gender equality is one not won – and that women (and men) must keep fighting to achieve it. Women of the first world must fight not only for ourselves, but also for our sisters who live in oppressive cultures where women and female babies are killed because they are regarded as worthless and replaceable. This fight is not one to be won through violence – but through the education of both girls and boys. It is my hope that by giving voice to Tudor women through the construction of fiction, young adult women will engage with my stories and reflect about the possibilities for their own lives.
It goes without saying, despite the passing of hundreds of years since the last Tudor monarch drew her final breath, patriarchy still rules our world. I feel deeply about my historical women. It breaks my heart to think of how Anne and Katherine of Aragon ended their lives – simply because the man they loved had the power to destroy them. It breaks my heart that this still happens in 2016. Last year, in Australia, two women a week were murdered by someone who once professed to love them. The majority of the murderers were men. It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time that there are men who see their female partners and children as possessions – possessions they have the right to destroy.
I flesh out my characters through passion. I’m passionate about giving my historical women voices – not only because they were too often silenced and refused justice during their lives, but because giving them voices also gives me a voice.
I live in hope if enough women speak up about their lives then we might yet discover the truth of Muriel Rukeyser’s words: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’ (Cited by Gandolfo 2008, p 142).
Smile, I hear again my imagined Anne Boleyn speaking in my mind, telling me she would like the final word:
Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell, my joy! Adieu comfort!
For wrongfully ye judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it will not be,
Ye seek for that can not be found.”
Gandolfo, E 2008, ‘Feminist Fictionmaking’, New Writing, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 140-149.
Kundera, M 2003, The Art of the Novel, Reprint Edition, Harper, Perennial Modern Classics, New York.
Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Her third Tudor novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, will be published with Madeglobal sometime in 2016.
While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder (Tom told the story of Anne Boleyn in Dear Heart, How Like You This?), serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.
After successfully completing her MA (Writing) at Swinburne University Wendy became a tutor for the same course. She gained her PhD (Human Society) in 2014.
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