Thoughts from a writing life…

Introducing Sophie Destivelle: assassin, spy and rebel woman

How do characters take life in the mind of a writer?  

When I teach on writing courses, or when people contact me on line, this is one of the key questions, second only to ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (on which note: having ideas is not the issue. I am awash with ideas.  Having the stamina to turn one of them into a book, and having a publisher prepared to put the time and effort into publishing it are quite another matter).  But anyways – finding characters that take life in your head is one of the absolutes to writing books that will transport your reader.  If you can live a character, if you can feel what s/he feels, if you can put that down in real time so that a reader is carried along on the wave of hope, greed, lust, terror, rage, jealousy, desperation, joy…then your reader is more in your world than the world outside and this – this – is why people read.  At least, it’s why I read.

Characters come from all kinds of places. Some of them are the weight that balances the end of a sentence that you didn’t even know you needed.  Patrice, who was a key character in Into the Fire and has a walk-on part in A Treachery of Spies, was a voice on the end of a phone when I needed one. He wasn’t in any of my outlines, not even as a concept.  In the TV version, he’s morphed again to become someone even more central with a whole different back history and a quite different set of relationships (television writing, I discover, is as unlike novel writing as riding a horse is unlike riding a bike: they both get you from A to B but the muscles required and the experience during the ride are worlds apart).   

Other characters are essential to the plot – but here’s the rub: if you force someone to do something that is against their sense of authenticity, their own inner integrity, then the book will run into a brick wall and will end up like all those others on your Kindle where you’ve read the first thirty pages and just know you’re never going back.


“So the key is to be flexible.  Treat your characters like new friends and get to know them so that you understand why they are doing something: and give them the freedom to surprise you.  If they surprise you, they’ll surprise the reader, which is no bad thing as long as whatever action they take is coherent with the book as a whole.”

Creating the fictional character of a woman spy

All of which brings us to ‘les equips de tueurs’ (literally, the teams of killers).    When I was a child, I read of these in John Goldsmith’s book, The Accidental Agent, which is his biographical account of his time as an agent of the Special Operations Executive, parachuted into occupied France.  I didn’t remember much of the book beyond a particularly harrowing torture scene, the escape scene which is the heart of the book (and heart-stopping) and a short scene where the Resistance capture a mother and daughter who have been consorting with the enemy.  Goldsmith can’t bring himself to shoot the daughter, but does undertake to shoot the mother.  As a ten year old, who didn’t understand what ‘consorting’ was, I spent days wondering what I’d do if that was me.

I rediscovered the book as an adult, doing the reading for A Treachery of Spies and only slowly realized it was the book from my childhood.  This time around I knew that I wanted a young woman to be sent back into France, so that I could explore the women agents of the SOE, but I was struggling to find who she was.  Then I read this:

“Pierre, the man who betrayed me…had been assassinated by one of the Resistance’s teams of trained killers – equipes de tueurs – within three days of my arrest… The killer teams normally did no other form of Resistance work and were therefor above suspicion.  Their numbers included harmless-looking, under-developed students and one or two anaemic girls. I got the impression that the weaker they looked the more deadly they were.”

Oh. My. Goodness.  If ever there was a gift to a writer, this was it.  ‘Harmless-looking, under-developed students and one or two anaemic girls…the weaker they looked, the more deadly they were.

I haven’t read a single account of these teams of assassins in any other account of the war, but Goldsmith was writing in the fifties and he was there, I’m not about to argue with him.  Above all else, this has the feel of authenticity to it: it’s quirky enough that it’s not the kind of thing anyone would make up.

Finding Sophie Destivelle

So here was the first skeleton of a young woman involved with the Resistance.  All I had to do was find a name  (or two: in the war, the agents had many different names: too many for a novel)  so our delicate, deadly woman became Sophie Destivelle.  She is young, fine-boned, and trained as a nurse which gives her the unsqueamish-ness that a good assassin needs, together with the essential understanding of anatomy and physiology that lets someone kill cleanly and effectively.  And she is deadly, no question, but honour, courage and a sense of duty run through her like writing through a stick of rock.  She’s passionate – she loves freely and with all her heart  – but she’s also easily hurt and her back history means that she’s wary of letting herself go into whatever she feels.  The one lighting love of her life stretches from the forties to the present day and is one of the driving forces behind all she does. 

I didn’t know any of this when I sat at my desk one day and felt a light bulb go on and I had to let her teach me through all the iterations of the text.  Most of all, I had to feel my way into what it was to be a woman who was sent out quite explicit to use her passion as a weapon: how impossible this is unless a part of you actually feels that which you are trying to have your enemy believe.  That was hard…really hard.  But it was also necessary, and, having discovered the depths of her, I love her now as much as any character I’ve ever created: perhaps more than any of them.  She’s the hero of the short story, A Taste of Treachery which you can try free before you read the book. Or you can plunge in and meet her early in the novel, in all her guises.






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