Characters: it's all about the people


Husavik Harbour photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries

What if a group of ordinary Icelanders, angry Icelanders, met at one of these protests in the Parliament Square? What if they decided that those responsible for the crash deserved to be punished? Directly. By them.

That was my idea for Magnus II.

My character invention technique
I decided my ordinary Icelanders would be a fisherman, a middle-ranking bank executive, a writer, a student and a junior chef. Now I needed to find something out about these people.

I have developed a useful technique for exploring my characters. First I locate someone similar to the character in question, usually the contact of a contact, and arrange to meet them. I don’t know why, but in my experience almost everyone wants to meet an author writing a book about people like them.

I don’t ask extremely personal, direct questions. I tell them about my character, what he or she is like, their parents, their fears, their ambitions, where they live, what car they drive. I then ask them what’s wrong with my description. At this stage there is always something wrong and they are eager to tell me.

Next I ask how I can improve the character. We work on it together. It’s fun. They tell me about the ambitions the character would have, their habits, their doubts, their bugbears, their inner conflicts. Of course, often they are projecting their own deeper feelings, but sometimes they are talking about their friends or their family. The character comes alive.

A Quota Princess
Let’s take the fisherman. My initial idea was that his name was Björn. He was in his early thirties, tough, from a family of fishermen, and came from Sandgerdi, a fishing village near Keflavík Airport at the south-western tip of Iceland. He had borrowed to buy a boat in foreign currency, and suddenly, after the kreppa, he had no chance of paying back his loan.

To discuss Björn, I met Linda at Kaffitár in the middle of Reykjavík. Linda described herself with a smile as a ‘quota princess’. This is because her father is a ‘quota king’. To understand fishing in Iceland you have to understand fishing quotas. To understand Björn, I needed to know his quota situation.

OK − I know fishing quotas sound dull, but this bit is genuinely more interesting than you might expect, so don’t skip it.

Fisherman heroes
Fishermen are Iceland’s heroes. This wasn’t always the case. Although there have always been millions of fish swimming around Iceland, it was a nation of farmers. Only in the early twentieth century, with the invention of the outboard motor, did Icelanders start catching fish in a big way themselves, from small inshore fishing boats.

As the century progressed, Iceland pushed the limits of its fishing waters further and further offshore. Herring became a massive source of wealth in the 1960s, as well as the ubiquitous cod. Fishermen were tough, independent, courageous and, during the herring boom, rich. The chain of small fishing villages that surround the rim of Iceland became prosperous.

As the catches grew, the fish stocks dwindled and, like fishing nations everywhere, Iceland had a problem. Their solution was to implement a quota policy. In 1984, all the fishermen in Iceland were given for free a quota, based on their catches over the previous two or three years. This quota allowed them to catch a certain proportion of the total allowable catch set by the fishing ministry every year. These quotas could be traded.

In many ways, this new system worked brilliantly. The authorities enforced total catches that were low enough to ensure that fish stocks recovered, and Iceland’s fisheries became sustainable. The owners of larger boats were able to buy up the quotas of their smaller colleagues, making fishing much more efficient. Iceland’s economy prospered and fishing remains one of its key export industries.

But it was undeniably unfair. It was a windfall for a small proportion of Iceland’s population. Fishing captains grew very rich. They became quota kings. They bought expensive houses in Seltjarnarnes. A group of them banded together to buy Stoke City football club in England. And while the owners of the boats did well, there were fewer fishermen on bigger fishing boats, and so employment in the industry fell. It was tough for the smaller operators, like my character Björn.

Despite its success economically, and the much-needed foreign currency it earned after the kreppa, fishing remains a divisive issue in Iceland. Some people think the quotas should be taken back by the government. The fishermen themselves tend to support the conservative Independent Party, and to oppose joining the European Union; they don’t want Brussels messing with their fish.

A real fisherman
Linda took me down to the harbour and I met her father. At first sight, he didn’t look particularly big, or tough; in fact, he seemed mild-mannered, polite and friendly. But he had huge hands, and a face etched with a thousand wrinkles through which bright blue eyes twinkled.

Linda had explained how he was a canny businessman, but when I asked him how my character Björn could become a successful fisherman, he said he would learn to think like a cod. And he would love to fish. He would have started fishing as a boy and never have been able to give up.

By the end of meeting Linda and her father, I knew all about Björn and his boat and his problems.

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