By Foday Mannah
I attended an all-boys boarding high school in Sierra Leone where a popular pastime was reading novels that stereotypically were designed for boys; think Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, and Robert Ludlum. For some reason though, the author most popular in our high school and indeed the sub-region was James Hadley Chase.
With the benefit of experience and hindsight, Chase’s novels have significant flaws whilst being rather predictable and stereotypically offensive: they all featured at least one beautiful woman who is deceptive and would no doubt sleep with the dominant male protagonist; there were often heists and other get-rich-quick schemes that fell flat; people of minority races are employed in menial jobs with their physicality outlined in pejorative details etc. Chase’s novels largely reflect the backward attitudes of his era, although I confess to still reading them today as I still find them fairly entertaining.
Once we hit university, one of our lecturers who taught us a course on the novel, was quick to point out that our high school favourites were not novels in the strict sense, glibly dismissing them as “crime and sex fiction.” In essence, they were flaky and undesirable creations that had no right to share the title of “novel” with the likes of works produced by the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck, Mongo Beti and James Baldwin, all of whom we studied on the afore-mentioned course. This opinion no doubt rankled slightly as we believed that our childhood favourites held merit. We for instance all agreed that we liked Chase because he “described people and places very well.”
In one of his novels, So What Happens To Me?the protagonist Jack Crane who narrates events in the first person, describes his initial meeting with a minor character, Wes Jackson:
Wes Jackson stood in the doorway of my cabin like an undersized King Kong. He was about 6ft 5ins, massively built and around thirty-two or thirty-three years of age. He had a turnip-shaped head that sat on his vast shoulders without suggesting he had any neck. His small nose, his small mouth and his small eyes struggled to survive in a sea of pink-white fat. His jet black hair was close-cropped. He wore heavy black shell glasses that slightly magnified his sea-green eyes. He was immaculately dressed in a blue blazer with some fancy badge on the pocket, white linen slacks and some club tie pinned to a white shirt with a large gold tie pin.
Chase’s lucid attention to detail is impressive whilst he also manages to convey the narrator’s disapproval of Wes Jackson with word choice that suggests ridicule. Indeed later in the novel, the relationship between the two unravels.
Chase also does something very well which is by no means original; the use of imagery to aid description. From the very early years we teach children about similes, metaphors and personifications and how they enhance description. In the example above, the metaphors which compare Wes Jackson to King Kong and his head to a turnip are effective in outlining his physicality whilst also being funny. As an aside, I also like Chase’s simple repetition of the word “small” to describe Jackson’s eyes, nose and mouth.
On the novel course I mentioned above, we studied Chinua Achebe’s ThingsFall Apart, the tragic story of Okonkwo who finds himself unable to cope with the advent of colonial rule in Nigeria. Achebe opens his seminal novel by establishing Okonkwo’s character in engrossing detail:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat, the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten …
And later on the same opening page, Achebe focuses on Okonkwo’s physicality:
He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said when he slept, his wives and children in their out-houses could hear he breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody…
Again note the effective use of imagery especially to describe Okonkwo’s gait. Furthermore, in a couple of paragraphs, Achebe manages to establish Okonkwo’s physical strength and power, a key thread of the novel which amongst other things examines the concept of true manhood.
An idea I find useful in creating characters is writing random paragraphs on people from real life, at times changing their names for obvious reasons. One thing that stuck with me whilst watching television a while back was hearing John Cleese talk about how he had got the inspiration for Basil Fawlty from a real life obnoxious hotel owner. Cleese then spoke about how they built the rest of the programme around the premise of this single character thereby creating an endearing classic of British television.
One of my random character paragraphs currently on ice focuses on a lady from my childhood named Khadi Easton-Street:
Eventually, the romantic carousel that was Tabara’s life came to a standstill, and one of his lady friends became a constant. Like Tabara’s sister, she was also named Khadi and to avoid confusion, everyone called her Khadi – Easton Street, a nod to her home address. Khadi – Easton Street was light-skinned with obedient hair that flowed down her back, in addition to being a disciple of high-heeled shoes. She was also the custodian of a couple of gold teeth which flashed when she smiled. Khadi -Easton Street added further lustre to Tabara’s visits, and it was agreed by all that she would make a most illustrious wife. It was rumoured that her father was a seaman who travelled to far away locations, lending her even more sophistication.
I realised that I went a bit overboard with the metaphors, hence one of the reasons why this is still in storage. I however realised that Khadi Easton-Street deserved her own story, something to work on in the future. I also realised that describing characters is largely instinctive and flows naturally whilst being influenced by several factors. In describing the character above, I had no fixed formula in my mind, but on the contrary just wrote her as I remembered her. Whilst realising that the description is by no means perfect, there are several aspects worth preserving which can be fine-tuned with editing.
Characters resonate and appeal due to a myriad of factors: background, physicality, circumstances, actions, conflicts etc. We have encountered these characters all our lives from bedtime stories to adult life. And all of them are memorable for specific reasons: from Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, a highly-skilled secret assassin who suffers amnesia to Margaret Atwood’s Offred who endures a harrowing existence under an oppressive dystopian regime. And whether we encounter them in “true novels” or in “crime and sex fiction”, they all strike chords whilst remaining memorable and endearing.