My books Thinking about Writing

Silence is Also a Lie: Writing Character (with the help of a dog)

I was at a very early stage of writing the first draft of Silence is Also a Lie. I was relishing the world building. The plot was messy but taking shape. I was still not quite sure who my characters were: I knew their names (Ash and Zara); I knew some of the big critical things that had happened to them in the past. But what they loved, wanted, needed; what made them tick – all that still felt thin and uncertain.

In writing other novels, I had used physical props as a way to get into the heads of my characters. So, writing a fantasy, I had walked round for weeks in my M&S brown corduroy coat, which became the stolen coat of a kid on the run in a cold and hostile country. Working on a contemporary story, I wore an amethyst and silver ring bought when I was 17 at a market in Greece, which became a critical clue to my main character’s mother’s hidden past. Both had helped me to walk in my characters’ shoes: to imagine what it was like to be them, to inhabit them.

I hadn’t thought about using this approach for the characters in Silence is Also a Lie. But my best friend has a dog called Lulu, and looking after her one day, walking her round the block near my house, I thought: ‘Oh. This is what Ash does. He walks his dead sister’s dog.’

It was a transformative moment for the book. It enabled me to imagine Ash in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. It gave me a sense of the physical routines that marked his life: walking the dog, before and after school. I could imagine him in his room, doing homework: the dog lying on his bed and starting up every time he moved. I felt how Lulu became somehow symbolic of Sophie for him, so he can’t contemplate giving her away, feels responsible for her, even sees his sister’s character reflected in all that life: in Lulu’s eagerness and energy.

As well as that, Lulu became a character in her own right (the only one in the novel based on someone real). She nosed her way into the story and stayed, her presence enlivening and lightening scenes otherwise shadowed by grief and danger. And as I worked and reworked the story, she ended up having a major impact on how the latter stages of the plot unfolded. 

If it wasn’t for her, Ash reflects at one point, none of this would be happening. 

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