Of all the stories of writers who make it, my favourite is about Kate Atkinson. You know, how she wrote about the museum, and some cracking short stories and then turned all the expectation about the writing career she was going to have on its head by turning to crime fiction and inventing a detective.
As it happens Jackson Brodie was an afterthought, created to tie together the lives of some characters she was already exploring. This in itself is a brilliant example of how creativity springs from actually doing things, rather than waiting for ideas to arrive before you begin. So Kate moved easily from literary fiction into genre fiction (actually I’m not sure you’d be allowed to do it the other way around – the other name I can think of is Iain (M) Banks, but the Wasp Factory came first so it’s the same deal) and it’s been so successful the BBC had to get their hands on it.
I suspect there’s been some handwringing around the country as ladies bemoan the choice of Jason Isaacs, of the ‘oh he’s not my Jackson Brodie’ kind, but I wasn’t one of them. There’ll have been some more handwringing about favourite bits of the books being left out and wotnot too, but I don’t really do that either. Books, tv, and movies are different beasts. They have different conventions, and comparisons are unfair. The fullest and best Jackson Brodie experience is found in the books (obviously), so if you’re going to moan, just read the books again and forget about the telly. If you want. Personally I’m not forgetting Mr Isaacs at all.
But what is it that makes Jackson such a compelling character? Here are five things that helped make us passionate about Mr Brodie:
- He has a perfect name. Last name as a first name. Just the right number of syllables. The kind of name you can imagine screaming in frustration or lust. And no, you’d never shorten it to Jack. It’s familiar, but slightly unusual. It says he’s not scary weird, but he is not your normal bloke down the pub either. It’s the kind of name that makes you do a wee double-take, but not the kind of double take that Zebediah Pinkerton would make you do. It’s a succinct lesson in naming your characters – we make assumptions about names, and as a writer you might a well use that to your advantage.
- The tortured past that has screwed him up. The sister who drowned. It’s the humanising element of a man who is otherwise ex-military, ex-copper. No one feels particularly passionate about either of those, let’s be honest. But the idea that something so awful drove him to be both soldier and copper in an effort to fix it, and that neither of those things were the answer, makes him vulnerable, and therefore touchable. Without it he’s just a meathead.
- He has passion himself. Not just the loved up kind (tho you suspect that would be amazing) but the kind of passion that makes him stick with his clients, even if they’re not paying. It’s in the way he picks up the waifs and strays, and nurtures them, looks after them. The way he loves his daughter. The way he couldn’t stop being passionate about his work (and his past I expect) to the detriment of his marriage. He might not express it openly (and Kate is great at keeping a bit of mystery around him) but you know he cares. Can’t help himself. Who wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that?
- He’s got presence. Part of this is his physical body. He gets knocked about a bit, but he can handle himself, even if he doesn’t always come out on top. He’s not afraid of the teenagers on the corner, the lowlifes in the pub, the rude shop assistants – the idiots who infect our modern lives. He might be afraid of the fight but he wouldn’t walk away from it. Because Jackson is always going to fight for what is morally right (even if it falls outside the law). This is unnerving, unusual, and compelling. He makes the choices and fights the fights we wish we could. And he does it every time it’s asked of him.
- Lastly, and most importantly of all, Kate Atkinson thinks he’s great. She loves him. He is frustrating, and brilliant, and all of those things I’ve just mentioned, and she clearly enjoys writing every aspect of him. He’s capable, laconic, repressed, dogged. Real. And how much fun to write such a many-faceted person? If we are so passionate about him it’s because he’s written with passion, and with joy. If we’re going to learn anything from Jackson Brodie as writers, it’s that we have to love our main characters to write them well.
Think of those characters that stay with you, the ones you’re convinced you could bump into if only you turned the right corner. My guess is that those characters are the ones loved the most by their creators, flaws and all. If you as the writer cannot love your creation, then how will anyone else? More importantly, how will you stay engaged with the writing over the course of thousands of words?