Sebastian Faulks, Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz have all done it for James Bond. Alexandra Ripley did it for Scarlett and Rhett. Jill Paton Walsh did it for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and PD James did it for the characters from Pride and Prejudice. There have been numerous attempts to solve Charles Dickens’ unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. And even Thomas the Tank Engine has been given a new lease of life, by the son of his original creator.
So what is it that makes authors want to write new stories centred on existing characters?
In one respect, I think, it’s because once the original author has died, there can be a great sense of regret that there will be no more from the same pen. So if the authors’ stories and characters are popular, why not give their fans more to enjoy, in the form of sequels, prequels, or simply more adventures? Or you can even give the original story an alternative ending. More on this later.
You don’t need to be a famous, or even a published, author to take advantage of this very useful literary device. Using a well-loved character (or set of characters) as the basis for a new story can be an excellent way of dealing with an attack of writer’s block. Think of a favourite character from a book, a play, or even a poem. Imagine what it might be like to meet that character face to face. What would you say to them? How do you think they would respond? Try writing a short dialogue between the two of you, and see where it leads. You may well find that it gives you a springboard to a whole new story. No writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn’t end up in the final version.
Or think about how the character behaves in the original work. If his or her behaviour is unusual, what might have happened in the past to affect actions in the present? Let your imagination run riot – prequels make fascinating stories!
When, more than forty years ago, I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s wonderful film of Romeo & Juliet, I came away thinking: This is the world’s greatest love story, so why did it all have to go so horribly wrong? That question has haunted me ever since.
Then, a few years ago, I read one of those lists of Things You Must Do Before You Die. To be honest I found most of them pretty underwhelming, but the one which stood out was Write the book you want to read. And this was what first inspired me to start writing the book I’ve always wanted to read: the version of Romeo & Juliet which has a satisfactory outcome. (I’m not by any means the first person to have attempted to re-write the Bard and reduce the body-count. As far back as 1681, a writer called Nahum Tate produced an alternative version of King Lear, in which Cordelia and Edgar are lovers, the goodies survive, the baddies get their come-uppance, and Lear regains his throne at the end!)
The eventual result was The Ghostly Father – a part-prequel, part-sequel to the original Romeo & Juliet story, told from the point of view of the Friar. I’ve often wondered why, in Shakespeare’s play, he behaves as he does – and by giving him what I hope is an interesting and thought-provoking backstory, I’ve tried to offer some possible answers.
In addition, the novel explores what might have happened to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers if events had taken an alternative course. In the play, the lovers fall victims to a sequence of misfortunes which combine to produce a maddeningly avoidable catastrophe. But what if just one of those unfortunate events had not occurred? What difference could this have made?
Read the book and find out…