Getting inside Laurence’s head
Given the title of this post, I should probably start by pointing out that the fifteen year old narrator of 15 Days Without a Head, Laurence Roach, is only ever metaphorically headless – otherwise there wouldn’t be much point in occupying his head in the first place!
15 Days Without a Head is Laurence’s story; he tells it – I just wrote it down. At least, I hope that’s how it comes across when people read the book. One of the things I like most about writing in the first person is that it gets me, the author, out of the way. Telling the story in present tense was a conscious decision too – I wanted readers to feel as though they were standing right next to Laurence, experiencing events at the same moment he did. We know no more than he does – we can’t even be sure that he will survive.
I spent months inside Laurence’s head while writing and revising the book. I enjoyed his company, admired his courage and pragmatism in the face of mounting difficulties. Most of the time he was an easy-going companion, but there was only so far I could push him around before he dug his heels in. Sometimes, Laurence’s head wasn’t an easy place to be, and there were occasions when, like him, I wished I could get away, to stop the voices and the questions “hissing and scratching around my brain like the roaches in the kitchen.”
I realised early on that it was crucial to allow Laurence to be unreliable, to tell his version of events. Ask five people to write an account of the same incident, and you’ll get five different stories. Each person will portray events as he or she sees them, or rather, as they want the reader to see them. My job, in this instance, was to make sure there were enough clues, so that the reader could sometimes see through what Laurence was telling them, and realise what was really going on.
I mentioned at the start that it is important for the writer to be ‘invisible’ in a first person narrative. It’s easy to give voice to your own opinions and prejudices, but vital that you make sure everything expressed is true to your narrator. If you and the character agree – that’s fine, but there were a couple of sentences I took out of 15 Days, because they sounded more like me than Laurence!
So how do you get inside a character’s head? Sometimes people arrive on the page almost fully formed and simply introduce themselves; with others it takes a little longer to get acquainted. It’s all about understanding that person until you know instinctively how they would react in a given situation. I’ll often have reference points: friends they remind me of, even a photograph can help and provide something real to hold onto. When Laurence appeared, it was like one of those rare moments when you meet somebody new, and after talking to them for only a few minutes, feel like you’ve known the person all your life.
Despite that, I still had to do my ‘homework’. I always take some time away from the story to write about my characters. These pages never end up in the book, but often spark ideas that do. I’ll write about their clothes – maybe a favourite item, think about the story behind it; find out what books they have read; the films and music they like. I sometimes compile a playlist of songs they might be listening to.
In 15 Days, Laurence has a Secret Things Tin:
“There’s a pebble in here, from the beach at Barmouth where we went on holiday with Nanna, and a note from Chloe Raven asking me to marry her – we were both eight at the time. I could list the contents of this box by heart, …”
Thinking and writing about what would be in Laurence’s Secret Things Tin gave him a history, like sitting down and listening to someone tell you stories of their past. I think that’s one of the most important things to remember when writing a character – the same as when you meet a person in real life – you have to be prepared to listen, if you want to find out who they really are. Only then, can you genuinely get inside their head, and speak on their behalf.