How to create sympathetic characters according to Gail Honeyman
On her 40th birthday, Gail Honeyman promised herself to start work on the book she’d always dreamed of writing. Only a few years later, she was talking to an enthusiastic crowd in the basilica of Mantova’s Palazzo Ducale about her global bestseller. Her interviewer, TV presenter Paola Saluzzi, asked who had already read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Around three quarters of the audience raised their hands.
"Writing a book is difficult", said the author. At the time, she was working in an office, and she would get up at 5am to write before work. If you write 250 words a day, then after a year you have a book. It’s harder than it sounds, she conceded, recalling the cold, dark Scottish winter mornings. Nowadays, writing is her full time job, and it’s a big life change after working in an office for 20 years. “It’s a bizarre job,” she said. “Most of the time you are alone with your creations. Then you find yourself on stage in a basilica with a mic. Not many jobs are so extreme.”
Everybody likes an underdog. Readers sympathised with the character of Eleanor because it’s human nature to connect with someone you can see is troubled. With the friendship which develops between Eleanor and Raymond, she wanted to show that kindness can be transformative. These are little things that we all have the power to carry out, she said. The conversation continued, but members of the audience were already queuing at the front with books ready to be signed.
Honeyman writes voice-driven narrative, investing time to discover everything about her characters before she starts writing. What would Eleanor do in this situation? What would she order? On the bus one day, she noticed a woman wearing a watch and decided that was Eleanor’s watch. Asked about the film adaptation, Honeyman confirmed that its in progress, but could not say who she would choose to play the part of Eleanor. "I know the tiniest details about my character," she said, "but I don’t see a face."