When I was a young man our family was registered with a group medical practice which meant we could be seen by any one of a number of doctors. I usually went to the same female doctor. I shall call her Dr Bregovic. She was about my own age, seemed very capable and efficient and was always prepared to give me time. My wife, Rosie, and our two daughters, however, had a somewhat lower opinion of her and invariably tried to get an appointment with one of the other doctors.
If my daughters were ill, Rosie usually took them to see the doctor. But not always. I remember one occasion in particular when Kathleen, my younger daughter, had some complaint and Rosie was not available. So I accompanied Kathleen to the surgery. I can’t remember how old she was at this time, a teenager perhaps or possibly pre-teen. Not yet old enough to be seen by herself, anyway.
To Kathleen’s annoyance, I had made an appointment with Dr Bregovic. When our turn came we went into the consulting room together and Dr Bregovic was her usual, attentive self. She listened to what Kathleen and I had to say, diagnosed the complaint and wrote out a prescription.
I thought the appointment went very well. But, as soon as we were outside the consulting room, Kathleen turned to me with an expression of scorn. ‘So that’s why you’re so keen on Dr Bregovic!’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, genuinely baffled.
‘For goodness sake, dad! She was flirting like mad with you.’
I honestly hadn’t been aware of it.
A similar kind of thing happens sometimes in my novels. Minor characters get introduced into the story. They have a job to do and they do it well. But as the narrative grows, I find myself getting to like them more and more. I become increasingly impressed with the manner in which they go about things, the way they seem to know what they’re doing in the story, the fact that they are always prepared to make time for me. Soon, without even realising it, I have moved them to the front of the narrative while the real protagonist languishes in some forgotten part of the plot.
Of course this is what people mean when they say that characters develop a life of their own. It’s considered to be one of the pleasures of writing and it’s true that it's very enjoyable when a character you have created from nothing starts coming to life with such undeniable vigour. But you do have to be aware what is happening, otherwise the arc of the story gets twisted out of your control, the whole thing starts going in the wrong direction and before long your novel has ground to a halt. When that happens you usually end up deleting a whole chapter, sometimes more. And there’s nothing worse than finding you’ve got less words at the end of the day than you started with.