What would life be like if you could recall every detail of your entire life?
Casey has hyperthymesia, a rare condition which means that she has perfect recollection of her past, a burden which imprisons her in her memories. There is no joy in the present, no thought of the future; only the inescapable past playing constantly in her mind.
Then one day she meets Joe, a man without a past. Or is he?
Together they find a present, which has the potential to save them both but also forces them to confront a future that challenges their love of life and each other.
Degrees of Losing is a story about love and loss, memory and time, and what it means to be somebody.
Shan Purcell was born in Sydney, and raised in Perth, Western Australia from the age of one. She attended St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School, before studying Psychology at the University of Western Australia.
Shan moved to North West of the UK in 2002. She completed a Masters degree in Marketing at the University of Salford in 2005 and has been working in marketing in the education sector since then. Shan, 37, now lives in Hale in Greater Manchester with her partner and her dog, Gizmo.
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GUEST POST BY Shan Purcell
How do you make an interesting character?
When setting out to write Degrees of Losing, I knew that creating two really strong, interesting characters was key. For me, with my background in psychology, I am particularly interested in the way that different mental conditions can affect how we live our day to day lives. Casey has hyperthymesia which means that she can recall every little detail of everything that has happened to her. This condition defines her, controls her so that she constantly relives her past and cannot find any happiness in living in the present. That seemed like a good way to start, with a character whose world view is going to be very different from the average person. Joe, of course, the other main character, has an entirely different mental condition that he is trying to contend with.
I spent a lot of time before I started writing thinking about the characters, what they looked like, how they spoke, where they went to school, their dreams, their worst fears. By the time I wrote my first sentence, I had a very clear picture of all of them. Often I would sit back and just watch the scene play out in my mind like I was watching a movie and then I would write the scene down. If I hadn't done so much preparation at the beginning, I think the writing process would have been a lot harder and I would have had to do a lot more rewriting at the end (and I did do a lot!).
In preparing the characters, it was especially important that they each had a major conflict that they were trying to resolve. For Casey, this is to find a way to forget the past. But even the more minor characters are all dealing with some sort of conflict: trying to escape the reality of a serious illness, hoping to finally have their unrequited love reciprocated. But then, through the journey that they go on, their goals change, even become the exact opposite of what they set out to achieve. I tried to use that idea a lot. I tried to think about what could happen to the characters in the story to make them say or do in the end the one thing that they never thought they would have at the start.
It's also important that characters are complex and contradictory in ways. No one wants to read about a cliched, one dimensional character. Casey is very troubled at the start of the story, using alcohol and sex to escape her memories and she often behaves in ways that people would find offensive but underneath that exterior is actually a really good, caring person, qualities that she tries to harness to help Joe and her family. Joe is charming, inspirational and larger than life but is also narcissistic and arrogant, perhaps even dangerous.
The final element for me was to make the characters likeable. In my first draft, Casey was even more bitter at the beginning, more extreme in her behaviour but a couple of my test readers felt that it went too far, that they struggled to root for her so I softened her a lot in the rewriting process. She is still a tortured soul but her empathy for others and her honest recognition of her own shortcomings makes her a lot more endearing.
Someone asked me after reading the book if the things Joe says about himself are true and I said that I wasn't sure. She found this weird. After all, I had created the character so how could I not know. But in the end, Joe, Casey and the other characters feel real, they feel alive to me and ultimately, only Joe can say whether or not he was telling the truth. I hope other people feel that I do achieve that, that I do bring these characters to life for them, in the same way that they are to me.