On reappearing characters

Posted on 20th June 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
Bestselling author (and former Waterstones Bookseller!) David Mitchell on how reappearing characters provide a link between his otherwise unrelated novels

The Bone Clocks is my sixth novel to be published, and readers who have read any of the others may recognise a few familiar faces. Hugo Lamb, a major character in The Bone Clocks, first appeared as a charismatic older cousin in a single chapter of my 2006 novel Black Swan Green. No hint was given at that time about his future career as a soul-decanting pseudo-immortal because I didn’t know such a future existed. A character I still know very little about called Levon Frankland tracks down Crispin Hershey at a literary wing-ding in 2015 in The Bone Clocks. He advises Crispin to make peace with the memory of Hershey Senior before disappearing for good, or at least until Frankland reappears in my next novel as a much younger man in the late 1960s. Not only people but objects, animals and even a nineteenth- century sailing ship have passed through the doors between my novels. Dr Iris Marinus-Fenby can also be found in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as Dr Lucas Marinus, then in his twenty-eighth lifetime. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon in literature – very little ever is – and the pedigree could not be nobler, or more venerable. Homer, whoever he/she was/they were, gave Odysseus his own series after his appearance in The Iliad, and Shakespeare resurrected Falstaff from his offstage death in Henry V for the pastoral romp The Merry Wives of Windsor. Every one of world literature’s countless trilogies or series of books is a trilogy or a series by virtue of its continuities of character as well as place, plot and style. Literary series may be loosely linked, like the township shared by both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s evergreen The Eagle of the Ninth sequence, connected only by a hazily remembered bloodline and a Roman legion’s eagle standard; or the prequel- sequel bond may be tighter, full of cross-references, a cast of reappearing dozens and unfolding macro-plots, as in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

My own ‘redeployment’ of characters sits towards the looser end of the spectrum. I want each of my novels to be its own stand-alone self that can be read independently, but I also want a limited amount of foot traffic to and from my past and future novels. I’ve tried to find a technical term for this literary to-ing and fro-ing from the academic discipline of Narratology, without much luck. ‘Metalepsis’ comes close, but metalepsis – if I’ve understood the term correctly – describes what happens when characters from one level of reality (often the reader’s) appear in another (often the narrative’s), as happens when Chaucer the poet and courtier appears as Geoffrey Chaucer the poet and courtier in The Canterbury Tales, or when the actor John Malkovich appears as the actor John Malkovich in Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich. (Confusingly, the word ‘metalepsis’ is also used by grammaticians to describe a type of figure of speech.) ‘Crossover characters’ is plainer English, but sounds tangled up with ‘crossover fiction’, so I’ll stick with ‘reappearing characters’ until something classier comes along.

Why do I do it? I’ve compiled a list of reasons, most of which spring from one minor vice or another. First up is self-indulgence: it pleases me to call characters back from literary purgatory and have them appear in new scenes in new narratives, and over time I’ve learned to trust that if something pleases me as a writer, there’s a decent chance my readers will enjoy it too. The second reason is derived from a sort of cowardice: the possibility of a character’s resurrection means I never have to cope with burying them. Even if I kill off a character in one book, who’s to say I can’t turn back time and bring him or her back in a subsequent novel? A third reason might be termed ‘sloth’, though we could charitably call it energy-saving pragmatism. Why invent the biography of a new character and what they think about God, money, work, social class, sex, politics, race, culture, language and the whole caboodle if I can re-hire someone from my pre-existing dramatis personae of unemployed characters who already have fully-formed backstories and opinions? I may have to fill in gaps in the biographies or add earlier or later chapters, but even that’s a time-saving pleasure: Eva Crommelynck’s appearance in Black Swan Green, for example, gave me a character with a pre-existing girlhood, courtesy of Cloud Atlas where she appears as the daughter of the composer Vyvyan Ayrs. My fourth motivation is a sort of envy of the long-form small-screen narrative, or the series of seasons. I observe characters like Don Draper from HBO’s Mad Men – a man already many tens of screen hours old – and wonder how a twenty-first century novelist could equal such meticulous, painstaking character portraits. One part of me thinks that novelists have always created these portrait studies over hundreds of pages, and still do; that the novel’s chief forte is subtlety and complexity of character; and that Anna Karenina or Nicholas Nickleby or Leopold Bloom are every bit as fully fleshed as Tony Soprano from The Sopranos or Jimmy McNulty from The Wire or Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black. But the fact is I’m not Tolstoy, Dickens or Joyce, and one of the best means at my disposal to deepen my characters is to bring them back in other novels and stories where new aspects of their personalities and new chapters in their lives can be explored. There are payoffs for the narrative, too. A ‘believed-in’ character from Novel A brings baggage that can adorn and enhance Novel B: when Bret Easton Ellis’s cannibal and necrophiliac Patrick Bateman from American Psycho appears in the same author’s 1998 novel Glamorama, the temperature suddenly plummets for any reader who knows the horror of Bateman’s secret life. Similarly, Falstaff’s antics in The Merry Wives of Windsor are shaded by ‘unearned melancholy’, purely because we know how and when this roly-poly comedian is going to meet his pitiful death in Henry V.

My final reason for using reappearing characters is to do with megalomania. I never set out to create a loosely connected textual world when my first novel Ghostwritten was published in 1999, but as the ‘Also By David Mitchell’ list has grown, this alternative reality shared by and made up of the books on that list has also kept expanding, like the now discredited Steady State theory of the creation of the Universe. Many an un-assuming writer hosts a not-so-secret God Complex – we are, after all, professional creators and absolute dictators of entire worlds – but by building doors and tunnels between my books, I feel that I’m going one further. Each of my novels is a single chapter in a larger volume that I’ll keep working on until I die. If I were to choose a title for that volume, I would call it The Überbook. Like I said, megalomania. 


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