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Katherine Blake on bending the rules

Katherine Blake on bending the rules

There are lots of ‘rules’ about writing. So. Many. Rules. One is that authors should always create likeable main characters, especially when they are female. Apparently, society doesn’t approve of unpleasant women, which immediately makes me want to be extremely unpleasant.

We are taught this lesson as children and as adult novelists we’re expected to accommodate the same expectations in our writing.

But what if we don’t want to? What if we want to have a character who behaves badly? I wanted to create a morally ambiguous character in Loretta Darling, the heroine of my debut adult novel. In fact, I didn’t have a choice. Her voice raced down my fingertips across the keyboard, channelling a character that emerged fully-formed. Loretta demanded to have her story told and was it really my fault if she had a less than perfect moral compass?

Still, I was faced with the cold, hard fact that I wanted my readers to keep turning the pages rather than hurl The Unforgettable Loretta, Darling against a wall. I needed to find a way of making Loretta sympathetic, even whilst we judged her choices. And there was a larger consideration at hand. She does some terrible things in the name of gender equality and I didn’t want to suggest that women should… Well, I won’t go there. Read the novel and find out for yourself!

First, I realised that I needed to dig into Loretta’s backstory. If we knew where she came from, we’d understand who she was. Backstory is a gnarly plot point. Too much and it becomes exposition, especially in the early chapters. I chose to use four techniques – flashbacks, voice, attitude and friends.

Voice and attitude were possibly the most intriguing. What gives someone a kneejerk reaction to an innocent question or even another person’s way of dressing? Why is Loretta so intrigued by her future love interest’s expensive watch? Readers ask and start to fill in the blanks for themselves. The one author rule I will subscribe to? Always, always trust your readers.

I was also lucky that Loretta had a wry, funny voice. We’ll forgive someone almost anything if they can make us laugh.

I gave Loretta a group of friends who adored her, each of them for different reasons – tenacity, loyalty or vulnerability. They were able to mirror different aspects of Loretta that were there to be admired. Of course, there are characters who don’t like her at all, but I was clear to share their own agendas. Don’t ever forget the power of secondary characters. You can often have the most fun with them!

Finally, I still insist that allowing Loretta to be less than perfect makes her likeable. After all, who amongst us is perfect? It’s an over-rated quality.

So, there we have it. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you like Loretta … or not. But she is unforgettable. After all, isn’t that what we’d all like to be?

The Unforgettable Loretta, Darling is published by Viking on 20 June 2024

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