Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

This A-Z of characters blog series is looking at memorable narrators in novels and what has made them stick in my mind. It’s all based on the three Cs of character that I teach in our online courses and at various events and writing festivals. The novel characters that people never forget are complex, contradictory and consistent, just like real people.

In the first of these blogs I looked at Adam in The Imposter from Damon Galgut. Today’s complex character is Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell, who visited the blog to chat to Sophie a while ago about this novel and her writing. Read the interview here.

So who is Bo?

Bo is a novelist, living the dream writer’s life in her beautiful Lake District home with multiple bestsellers in her backlist. She’s got a lovely family and a happy marriage. Bo shares the narration of this beautifully written and compelling novel with Alice, an aspiring writer that she meets when teaching at a writing retreat. The two women instantly feel a connection and an intense relationship quickly develops, with Bo playing the part of the older, wiser mentor who sees traces of her younger self in Alice.

What makes Bo such a complex character?

It’s the different sides of her personality that contradict each other; and that she’s so difficult to suss out. Is she nice or is she nasty? I’m not going to reveal the answer to that but instead look at her character traits.

On the one hand she is caring, nurturing, supportive and on the other she is manipulative, dishonest and ruthless. She’s a great mother to her children and a popular member of her local community. She’s playing games with people’s emotions and twisting the truth to suit her own ends. She’s altruistic and donates to charity. Like the image above, different elements of of her personality were reflected on the surface but at the same time all the other sides of her were still there behind that reflection.

It was really hard to tell who the real Bo is. And this is true of humans in general. We never know what’s going on in other people’s minds and they often do and say things that are in direct contradiction to beliefs they have previously professed to hold. But at the same time they are usually consistent in how they go about things.

As writers it’s our job to decide what goes on in people’s minds, to share that with readers and show how that makes them act the way they do. One of the things I’ve learned through reading and writing a lot of fiction is that it’s the contradictions and the moments of inconsistency that make novel narrators stand out, make them memorable.

Which literary characters have you never forgotten and why? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll pick someone at random to win a free place on our online course, the Creating Complex Characters masterclass, in which I look at the using the three Cs in detail to write your own memorable characters. The winner will be picked on 27th June 2018.

Writing exercise:

Write a list of 3 positive character traits and 3 negative ones. Then create a new character for a short story that embodies them. Think about why they have these traits and how they manifest in their behaviour.


Up next in the A-Z of complex characters is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister…

Year of Indie Debuts – Exquisite by Sarah Stovel

This month’s’ books is ‘Exquisite’ by Sarah Stovell.

Hello Sarah, thank you for agreeing to chat about your book, Exquisite, I really enjoyed reading it.

Your writing is frankly amazing and I am in awe of it, which has actually made it quite hard to come up with questions! But I would like to talk about the process of writing such an intense book with two such strong characters. Did you find that they developed at the same time, or were they fighting for your attention as you went along? I wonder if one of them came to you first, or were they both always there at the start?

They were both there, full formed, at the very beginning. I had been thinking of them for years, though, so it wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sounds.

People often talk about a writer needing a glint of ice in the heart, that we mine personal experience ruthlessly. I think both your characters demonstrate that to the extreme, in different ways. I’m not going to ask if any of this is drawn on your own lived experience, but I am asking if you feel inherently that writers are risky people to get to close to maybe?

No, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t advise anyone to behave so badly to a writer that the writer feels a need to expose them. Because obviously, the writer will go ahead and do that.

The writing retreat in this made me smile, the description of the people there, I think I saw myself among them! I guess I would say this, but they are an amazing opportunity and can have that other world feel as you have time out from the real world to focus on your passion. Have you been on one before?

Yes. I have been on them and taught on them. They can be excellent. Really life-changing.

I like the way you use food in the book, it makes a statement about each of the main characters and the worlds they live in and that they create, especially Bo. How do you feel you the food relates to your story?

The sort of food we eat, like everything, is an indicator of social class (sadly). People at the top of the class-food chain get to munch down on gold. Those at the bottom get a few tins of economy soup from the food bank. This, in turn, will affect a person’s mental health. In ‘Exquisite’, Alice is very vulnerable and often hungry. She can’t cook, or look after herself. Bo, who has more power and wealth, eats well and uses food as a way of nurturing others. This is the first novel where I’ve used food in this way. In my new novel, I take it much further. Food is a big deal.

I think there are parallels between the literary debate over the Wordsworths, the discussion around the William/Dorothy relationship, and your book. Do you feel the two stories relate to each other?

Yes. There is a theme of a love that is so deep and shocking, it transgresses normal boundaries.

I hope that you’’ve written tons of books before this, because if this really is your first book I really will cry – but how have you developed your voice and got to the point of publication with Exquisite?

It’s very hard to pinpoint a smooth line of development in writing, but I would say that my first novel focused mainly on the voices of the characters. As I’ve developed, I have become more interested in landscape (which is something that has become increasingly important to me personally) and psychology. I think this shows in my more recent work.

Are you a baker? (Just thinking of the delicious and yet sinister french bread!)

Yes. I love baking. I’d never get anywhere on the Bake-off because I absolutely can’t be bothered to do a show stopper, but I love making cakes, scones, meringues, desserts, bread…

So, where is your writing heading next?

I’ve almost finished my next book. It’s about a young woman named Annie, whose mother has gone missing. Annie is evicted from her house for not paying the rent and goes to work as a nanny. While there, something happens to a child in her care…

Thank you for coming Sarah and giving us an insight into this novel and your writing process.

In my day job, well, one of them, I teach silversmithing, and one of the things you need to learn about is silver soldering. But soldering, the process of using a metal alloy with a lower melting point to the silver to fuse pieces together, doesn’t work without the use of flux. Flux, most commonly borax, is a glass like mineral which you paint on before you solder, and what it does it prevent the surface of the mental reacting with the silver to form an oxide. If you don’t use flux, the hot metal pulls oxygen from the air and when the solder melts, it fuses to this sooty deposit and the joint will fail.

With a lot of the writing I read, even writing I enjoy, I feel that it’s silver without flux, that there’s a coating on I can’t quite get through and which prevents the book from taking, from fusing completely with my mind. Sarah’s writing is like flux, it’s so good that I didn’t feel like I was reading, but rather that the two main characters were with me or that I was with them, that we were fused. I don’t know how you find the flux your writing needs, I don’t know if I have, but read this book if you want to understand what I mean.

You can get a copy of Exquisite here in print, digital or audio book.

And connect with her @sarahlovescrime on Twitter.





A year of Indie debuts – The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay


In this edition of our Indie debuts series I’m talking to author Lucy Hay about her thriller ‘The Other Twin’ published by Orenda books. It’s set in London on Sea, or Brighton as others may know it, a place which has always been some what subversive and alternative in nature and has attracted delight and dismay in equal measure. Her novel weaves its way through this setting and works itself into the cracks between the outward glitz and underground decadence of the town, and into the lives of two families which are equally enmeshed, one with the other. I opened my interview with her talking about the setting, as for me it came across as a tangible and exciting creation which was central to the book, almost a character in its own right.


Almost like cities such as London and Edinburgh, Brighton has a strong, vivid presence in fiction, which means that many people must come to any new representation of it with a lot of familiarity. How well do you know it as a place and do you feel the weight of all those ‘other’ Brightons behind your writing?

I knew I had to get Brighton right. It’s a vibrant city that has such a significance for so many people, especially the LGBT community. I knew that classics like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock right through to modern icons like Peter James’ Roy Grace would be compared against my version of Brighton – which people have, in reviews – so yes, that was a pressure. But ultimately, I had to let go of that and bring forth MY vision of Brighton, not recycle someone else’s. So rather than pore feverishly over published content, I went to Brighton and sucked up the atmos there, using my eyes, ears and other senses to really get a ‘feel’ for the place. Hopefully I have transmitted that to the page.

Your novel uses the dichotomy between the public and the private of the internet to great effect, the way that we publish the most intimate thoughts to a world of strangers and yet keep them from our nearest and dearest. How do you feel that sense of sharing and yet not sharing has affected how we live now?

I’m always reminded of Shakespeare’s notion of the ‘whole world’s a stage’ quote when it comes to the internet. We all have online personas now, just as we have public and private ones. How we use these online personas can differ, person to person. For some, the online persona is a ‘work thing’ – they may create a brand and strategy, that is very carefully crafted. For other people, online may be the only place they can speak the truth and truly be themselves. For just as many, it is somewhere in-between.  Social media has so many wonderful applications, especially for women and marginalised people to find their tribes and create opportunities (including work and money). But it also has a dark side: too many people abuse social media – such as trolls – and even more use it to fuel the neverending cycle of outrage we currently live in. It’s become a conformity factory, with perceived transgressors piled on and harassed; those people calling out others then kid themselves they’re raging against the machine and/or taking on the system. It’s a real shame.

There are a lot of hidden identities in the book, some hidden willingly, some desperate to be uncovered. Do you think that the struggle for truth in who you are is at the heart of your writing?

Absolutely. I spent a very long time confused about who I truly was; I felt fragmented, even a fraud. It took me many years to accept my own identity and my – sometimes paradoxical – roles and emotions within it. Life is a journey and I daresay there are still lots of things I will find out about myself yet, too. But unlike before, I am not afraid to do this anymore. I think that’s why I wanted to write about identity and truth in The Other Twin – I feel it is all a matter of perspective, rather than a concrete thing.

Reading your book I did reflect on how what might be called ‘Thrillers’ do seem to have a mostly white, female and middle class cast, especially those centred in a domestic setting rather than all spies and guns, if you know what I mean. Did you set out to write a book with a deliberately more diverse cast of characters?

I feel very strongly that stories of any kind need more variety. As a script editor and blogger at, I identified a need for stories to have more characters than ‘the usual’ a long time ago; not just for ‘political correctness’, but because there are swathes of the audience not being served – it’s good business sense! I have written several non-fiction books about writing, including one on so-called ‘diverse characters’, so it was a no-brainer to take my own advice! Lots of writers shy away from diverse characters like those from the LGBT or BAME communities, because they’re afraid of getting it ‘wrong’. I can understand and relate to this worry, because I felt it too. But I picked LGBT and BAME characters because of a genuine interest and feeling of solidarity with both communities; my friends and acquaintances sharing their own stories literally helped me inform the narrative. Their POVs were absolutely invaluable and I feel very grateful they shared their perspectives with me. There would have been no story without them.

Do you start a book with an idea of where the plot is going, or do you pick up a thread and see where it follows?

It depends. With The Other Twin, I saw the ending and ‘big reveal’ in my head, clear as day – as if it was a memory, like it really happened. I could see and feel it so clearly, right down to the location and the sense of urgency. From there, I asked myself: WHO are these characters? WHAT is happening? WHY? HOW did they get here? Though the ways of getting there changed through the many drafts, that ending never did.

Assuming this is your first published book, or even if it’s not, I imagine like most of us it’s one in a long and worthy line of nearly theres and also rans, so what do you think you’ve learned about your writing by being published?

Every book teaches you something in my experience. The Other Twin is my first crime novel and what I have learned from this one is how much difference an editor who really ‘gets’ the book makes. Both Karen Sullivan and West Camel at Orenda Books challenged me every step of the way to bring my best game to drafting process, they went through every line with the classic fine toothcomb! I was allowed to get away with NOTHING. The fiends!

Where is your next book set, will you stay in Brighton or are you moving to a new location?

Book 2 for Orenda is set in Epsom, Surrey. So very middle-class, white and straight … in both senses of the word. Probably the antithesis to Brighton, in fact!

Cats or dogs?

Cats, obviously. I have five of my own, I’m a crazy cat lady in training. When my kids have left home I plan to rant and rave and throw cats at everyone like the woman from THE SIMPSONS. It’s going to be awesome.

BIO: @LucyVHayAuthor is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the producer of two Brit Thrillers, DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2015). Her debut crime novel, THE OTHER TWIN, is due out with Orenda Books in 2017. Check out  here website HERE and all her books, HERE.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Other Twin’ as I am a sucker for a deep dark secret and the machinations people go through to keep it a secret. I found the main character appealing enough to want to go with her for the ride, and the world through which she traveled felt authentic and enticing. It also had a touch of glamour which one doesn’t often see in British set thrillers, which was a nice contrast to the darker side of the writing – I kept getting flashes of sequins and marble floors, bright lights and designer labels, like a brittle shell over murky waters. It also tackles some uncomfortable issues head on, in a way which wasn’t overly preachy, and it did give pause to reflect not only on what was happening in the plot, but what the book was subtly saying about the genre. So, if you fancy some nitty-gritty-glittery thriller action, this is definitely worth buying, and if you like Lucy’s work, it’s really good to see she’s got plans for many more with her supportive and high quality publishers, Orenda, who are certainly ones to keep tabs on.  And right now the Kindle edition of THE OTHER TWIN is on a 99p promotion, so there’s no excuse not to grab a copy!

Year of Indie Debuts: Sealskin by Su Bristow

Delighted to welcome Su Bristow to the blog today to chat about her moving and thought-provoking debut novel, Sealskin, out now with Orenda Books.

Su, can you tell us what inspired you to write a retelling of the Selkie legend?

There are some stories that just speak to me, and this is definitely one of them. Like all the best stories, it has many layers. It’s about how we as humans connect with the natural world, and how natural and supernatural intertwine. It’s about love, and the way it can grow in the most unlikely circumstances. It’s about how we can wound one another, and the long-term consequences of that, both for individuals and the wider community. And it has a beautiful setting.

On a more personal level, as a half-Scot growing up far from Scotland, Scottish mythology particularly fascinated me as a child. And as a young woman, I definitely identified with the compromising of my own identity that went with being in relationship or marriage, and of course with being a mother. It was later, being older and having a son of my own, that I became more interested in the shaming of male sexuality that goes on in our culture. And that’s what made me decide to write the novel from Donald’s point of view.

Although your main character, Donald, commits a horrible act at the start of the book throughout we see him grow and learn and become a better man. Is the ability of humans to change their nature a theme that you set out to explore when writing this novel or did it emerge naturally?

It’s not so much about changing our nature as about learning to live with it. We all get things wrong as we go through life, though not often in such a terrible way as Donald does. And we all end up wounded in one way or another. It’s our job as human beings not to be defined either by our wrongdoing or by our victimhood, but to grow through and beyond these things, to develop our potential as fully as we can. And in my professional life as a herbalist and a counsellor, I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years who are trying to do just that. We do have the ability to transcend our history and extend our limitations, and it’s an immense privilege to witness how far we can travel.

The sea is an important character in the book too and the landscapes that border it, and your writing of both is beautiful. Is this pull between the two and how both can be either welcoming or harsh at different times to different people, something that you have experienced from living by the sea?

I’ve never lived by the sea, though of course I’ve spent a lot of time near or on it in one way or another. But it’s one of the many natural environments that we can approach in many different ways. If we try to master and control it, it will always be a struggle, and we view it, like Donald at the start of Sealskin, with fear and even hatred. If, on the other hand, we try to understand and surrender to forces greater than ourselves, there is great beauty to be experienced. In the character of Mairhi, I tried to convey the joy and playfulness of someone who is thoroughly at home with the sea.

Although set in the past, its message of community, support for others and love being key to successful societies feels very apt today. Do you think it can have more impact to shine a light on problems of the modern world by using history to highlight them rather than contemporary stories?

I think we can shine light on our problems from all sorts of angles – the more the better! And history and legends remind us that there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever we are struggling with in the present day, someone has been this way before, and they may have valuable insights to share with us. And certainly these days, there is a global community, linked as never before by travel and by the internet. We have to learn how to live with difference and how to support each other through all sorts of challenges, whether we like it or not. The small communities of the past have a great deal to teach us in that respect.

What can we look forward to next from you?

A short story of mine is being released later this year, based on the old Norwegian stories about trolls, and how the way to outwit them was to keep them occupied by asking them riddles. At sunrise, they would turn to stone. They are portrayed as stupid and easy to deceive, but it’s one of those stories that has a logical flaw: if trolls are so stupid, why would they enjoy riddles at all? Why not just eat the human being straight away? So maybe, if you look at things from a troll’s point of view, there is quite a different story to be told…


Book blurb: What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence? Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance.

About the author: Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She’s the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written with psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern. Her published fiction includes Troll Steps (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and Changes which came second in the 2010 Creative Writing Matters flash fiction competition. Her debut novel, Sealskin, is set in the Hebrides, and it’s a reworking of the Scottish legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writing has been described as ‘magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey’.


Thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful interview, Su, and for a great novel that is filled with beautiful writing.

You can get a copy of Sealskin through various retailers, all of which are detailed here on the Orenda Books website.

Author Interview: Paul Hardisty – Reconciliation for the Dead

Great to welcome Paul Hardisty to the blog today. I recently read his new novel, Reconciliation for the Dead, and absolutely loved it despite the harrowing nature of the story and the troubled time in history it focuses on. It is the third in the Claymore Straker series and I am yet to read the first two but I don’t think this in any way detracted from reading this novel. The writing is beautiful, the story compelling and the insights into human nature, both good and bad, moving and mature.

You can get a copy of Reconciliation for the Dead through numerous retailers detailed on the Orenda Books website and I really can’t say strongly enough that you should go get one right now! This is an outstanding book and definitely one of the best I’ve read this year so far.


Paul, the layers of complexity in your main character, Claymore, are deftly handled with his vulnerability, the conflicts in his mind between duty and his moral code, his confusion and questioning of himself and those around him, making him jump off the page. Can you give an insight as to how you got to know him so well.

I have been thinking about this character for over 15 years. I started The Abrupt Physics of Dying, where Claymore Straker first appears, ten years before it was published. So I had a pretty complete view of his past and what drove him. In many ways, it is a past that I may have had. When I was a young man I came very close to going to South Africa to join up to fight the communists. It is only a twist of fate that I didn’t. So in many ways it is an imagined parallel life, and one I am very glad I didn’t chose.


The questions the book raises around ethnicity, racism, culture, and sexism, were for me answered by a message of ultimate togetherness, that we are all the same. Your book is set quite a way in the past yet it seems that these issues are still very much at the forefront today is that something you set out to highlight when writing it?

I want to write entertaining books. Stories that will keep the reader guessing and engaged right to the end. But, more importantly, I want to explore issues that are important to me. And the most important, is that we understand that we all have a hell of a lot more in common than not, and that we need to focus not on the small things that separate us, but on the big things we all agree on. Hopefully, that message on those themes are not obtrusive, but come to you through the reading, as an after-effect of reading what I hope is a great story.


Is learning from the past, or not, a theme that runs throughout the Claymore Striker series? What inspires you to explore this theme?

I have always loved history. And while the Claymore Straker books take place in the very near past (The Abrupt Physics of Dying during the 1994 civil war in Yemen; The Evolution of Fear in Cyprus and Istanbul in 1995/1996; and Reconciliation for the Dead in 1980-82 South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola), they are relevant now. Time goes on, but human nature has changed little since Hadrian built his wall. Never have the lessons of the past been more relevant than now, on a planet teeming with over 7 billion people (and more on the way), armed with nuclear weapons, moving a breakneck technological speed, with a fraying environment, but seemingly without much progress in the way of wisdom.


Will there be another in the series? And if so, can you tell us anything about it yet?

I am writing the fourth book in the Claymore Straker series now, and just spent 3 weeks in the Middle East doing additional research for the book (including a week long martial arts training camp in Israel with ex IDF special forces instructors). It is set in Zanzibar, Somalia, and Egypt, and follows the events of the first two books. The working title is The Debased and the Faithful, and we hope to have it ready for readers next year.


About the author: Paul E Hardisty has worked all over the world as an engineer and environmental scientist. His first book, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, set in Yemen during the 1994 civil war, was a London Telegraph thriller of the year, and was short-listed for the CWA Creasy Dagger Award. Reconciliation for the Dead, his third novel, has just been released by Orenda Books, and one critic has already called it “one of the most important books of 2017”. Paul is a martial artist, triathlete, pilot, conservation volunteer and university professor. He lives in Western Australia with his family.


Many thanks for coming, Paul, and sharing your thoughts on writing and the human journey. I shall be reading the first two in the series while I wait for the next.

Guest author: Steph Broadribb – Scouting locations for Deep Down Dead

Delighted to have Steph Broadribb on the blog today as part of the blog tour for Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books). It’s fast-paced, original and a very entertaining read telling the story of Lori, a bounty hunter in Florida who has her daughter’s illness to contend with as well as a past that’s coming back to haunt her. Over to you, Steph…

Some people say ‘write what you know’, and while I think writing what you’re interested in is as important as writing what you know, for me it’s important to get the sense of a place if I’m going to write about it. As a result, when I was writing Deep Down Dead I set key scenes in places I knew. Aside from central Florida, where I have family and so am a regular visitor, I drew on my own experiences to shape Lori’s including:

Driving from West Virginia to Florida

It was actually on the drive from West Virginia to Florida that I had the idea for Lori. I’d driven out of the Blue Ridge Mountains in WV and into Virginia, and stopped for the night in a small paper mill town in the middle of nowhere. It was when I drove out to get some dinner I realised that my taillights weren’t working. The car was a rental, and when I checked the closest place authorised to fix the lights it was over 100 miles away. So I drove only in daylight after that, but I kept on thinking what if the state trooper pulls me over? As I drove and I thought about it more I thought what if the state trooper pulled someone over and as they were talking there was a banging on the trunk – what kind of person who travel with a person in their trunk? And from that question, Lori and her six state journey came about!

Kayaking through the Everglades

Gators don’t come off especially well in Deep Down Dead, but in truth they’re a whole lot more docile than their crocodile relatives. I had the chance to get up close and personal with gators while travelling through the Everglades by kayak. It’s a great way to experience the swamps and waterways, and the silence of kayaking allows you to see the shyer creatures and birds, and also get into the nooks and crannies where some of the more rare orchids grow. Of course my peaceful kayak safari was a million miles away from the experience of Lori, JT and Dakota in Deep Down Dead – because although the Everglades have a real beauty some parts are remote and give potential for high danger (especially if the bad guys are the ones who’ve taken you there!!).

Off the beaten track in the Blue Ridge Mountains

I lived in West Virginia when I was in my early twenties, and it’s the place I always think of if I’m picturing somewhere tranquil. There’s something almost magical about the woods and the creeks and the freshness of the air. It’s also a rugged and uncompromising landscape – as Lori, JT and Dakota find out! – that demands respect. Like Lori I’ve camped out under the stars there and hiked up a mountain in the near-dark, although in less tense circumstances than Lori it has to be said.

I hope that from going to these places, and setting scenes from Deep Down Dead in them, I’m able to give the reader a real sense of what Lori’s experiencing (and up against!). Maybe I can even entice a few people to go visit these great places.


Thanks for coming, Step. Best of luck with your exciting debut novel.

You can find out more about Deep Down Dead here.