Poignant, funny and truthful

Bridget Jones, a 30-something single girl living a life in which relationships fail even faster than diets, is one of the great comic characters of our times. Her daily struggles will appear in her new column each Saturday. Her creator, Helen Fielding, tells Lydia Slater about life with Bridget.

SHE'S single, she's broke, she smokes and drinks far too much, she's sick to death of being asked why she isn't married yet and she's been on a diet for 18 years without losing any weight.

And yet, she seems to have struck a chord with anyone who has ever had a disastrous relationship, a mother, a bad hair day or a humiliating experience in a communal changing room.

The paperback Diaries of Bridget Jones have topped the bestseller lists for the past 11 weeks and has been sold to America, the author has been featured in Newsweek and a film of her life is now in progress.

Next week, Ms Jones will be joining etcetera to share her views on life, love and (somewhat alarmingly) politics.

Her diaries, which have been variously described as "a dazzling urban satire of modern human relations", "an ironic, tragic insight into the demise of the nuclear family" and "the confused ramblings of a pissed thirtysomething", provide an intimate window on the lifestyle of a London girl convinced that everyone is getting it right except her. Ms Jones has been instructed not to stay out too late on Friday nights to file her copy the following morning, in a sober and coherent manner, ready for inclusion in our Life and Times section. We shall see how it goes.

Bridget Jones is a 30-something single girl who lives in west London and works as a researcher for a daytime television company.

Her ambitions are few - she would like to lose weight and find true love - but apparently unattainable and her romantic life is in a state of perpetual crisis as she lurches from one dysfunctional boyfriend to the next. Luckily, Shazzer and Jude, her best friends, are on hand to provide pseudo-feminist advice and Australian plonk, sometimes rather too much of it.

The column frequently ends with an abrupt "Oops!" as she collapses, drunken and fully-dressed, on to her sitting room floor. This heroine de nos jours has received many proposals of marriage from her fans, entranced by her sparky prose and the tantalisingly obscured photograph which accompanies it.

She has lain uncomfortably on the couch of the psychoanalyst Oliver James (who concluded she needed Prozac), and this year turned her hand to celebrity interviewing when she was sent by The Independent to Rome, to meet her hero, Colin Firth.

Her trenchant turns of phrase have become popular parlance, even among those who have never read her work: "singleton", her preferred word for spinster, has entered the national vocabulary, as has its corresponding insult, "Smug Marrieds".

There is even a new adjective, "very Bridget Jones", which implies a certain kind of chaotic hedonism.

Sadly for her many fans, Bridget Jones does not actually exist. Her Diary is the creation of Helen Fielding, who invented it in self-defence after she was asked to join the ever-growing band of women columnists who confess their singleton sins to the public in a weekly column. "I couldn't possibly have splurged my private life all over the papers," Helen says with a shudder.

Instead, she whipped up an imaginary amalgam of insecurities, a woman who was always on three diets simultaneously (Hay, Scarsdale and F-Plan) because she liked to choose between the best aspects of all three.

There was also a practical reason for the pastiche. "If you write as yourself, you can't help but want people to like you. If you write as somebody else, you can be honest about the secret, stupid, shameful things you really think; such as when you're at a funeral and you start imagining what will happen at your funeral; ex-boyfriends being sorry, the marvellous things everyone will say about you and whether you will have a lovely coffin with lilies on, like Princess Diana."

In search of inspiration, she re-read her old university diaries and was surprised to find them peppered with lists of calorie-counted puddings and cocktails, alongside exhortations to herself not to bite her nails and to become a better person.

So she kicked off her first column with a detailed list of the calories, cigarettes and alcohol her protagonist had ingested, followed by an account of a telephone conversation with the man at the Cones Hotline. "I thought the column was so silly, it would only last three weeks, and I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I'd written it," she says.

But right from the start, her Diary touched a nerve of pre-millennial anxiety. National statistics have forecast that a quarter of all women will be single by 2020 and a healthy proportion of these will be discerning singletons unable to find a man with whom they are prepared to settle down.

It is of such women that her Diary speaks: of their habits and habitats but mainly of the never-ending struggle to maintain self-respect in the face of tactless parents, Smug Marrieds, and inadequate dates.

Helen Fielding is herself in her thirties, unmarried and living alone in west London. Despite her efforts to deny all similarities between herself and her creation, she admits that many of the more embarrassing episodes in the columns have been drawn from her own experiences: notably, the time she realised, while out shopping, that her skirt had somehow rucked up to her waist.

"When something horrid happens to me, my first thought is always that I can use it for Bridget. It insulates me a bit."

Helen is reluctant to reveal much about herself, "because lots of people think Bridget is real". She will admit that she went to St Anne's College, Oxford (Bridget was at Bangor), and then joined the BBC, working on a variety of programmes from Nationwide to Playschool.

After eight years and a spell as a producer, she left to try her hand at writing. It took her some time to find her niche: she sent an unsolicited article about car alarms to The Guardian every week for six weeks, without success.

Then, after a failed attempt at a Mills and Boon romance (her rejection letter read: "neither your characters nor your story are up to the high standards required by the Mills and Boon reader") she wrote her first novel, Cause Celeb, based on her experiences filming documentaries for Comic Relief in Africa.

The book - a satire on the relationship between starvation in Africa and media celebrity in London - nevertheless has Bridget-esque overtones. The heroine, Rosie, a well-meaning socialite-turned-aid worker, eventually dumps a commitment-phobe television celebrity for Mr Right.

Bridget, a mass of neuroses and modern addictions (cigarettes, chocolate and Lottery Instants) is rarely so successful; her columns, on the other hand, are as beloved as her love life is disastrous.

The novel based on her diaries, a modern-day version of Pride and Prejudice, has been No 1 in the bestseller list for the past 15 weeks. Two more books and a film are to follow and the new singleton genre she inspired has spawned a whole feral colony of copycat tomes.

"If Bridget is popular," says Helen, "it's because she lives in a state of nameless dread, thinking everyone knows how to live their life except her. What she doesn't realise is that lots of other people feel the same way."

Occasionally, Helen admits to a temptation to claim that she is Bridget. "I'm afraid it has all gone to my head and I have become an embarrassing show-off." She has only played her for real once, when interviewing Colin Firth, and says she found the experience liberating.

"I could ask all sorts of questions I'd never have dared to if I'd been me, like whether being called Colin was a disadvantage and whether, instead of his Italian fiancée, [now wife] he shouldn't be going out with someone who was English and more his own age."

It is precisely this kind of straight talking which has made Bridget more famous than her creator but Helen insists she has only been jealous once - last year, when Bridget was sent 13 Valentine cards while she only got one. "Otherwise, I am incredibly grateful to her."

Who is Bridget Jones?

·        Weight lost in average year: 357lbs;

·        Weight gained in average year: 358lbs;

·        Bane of life: her mother, over-confident advocate of the floral Country Casuals two-piece and serial adulteress;

·        Loves: Mr Darcy; self-help books; computer messaging; her friends Tom, Jude and Shazzer; going out; chocolate croissants; Silk Cut; bottles of chardonnay; Instants lottery scratch cards; Agnes B, Whistles and Jigsaw; Milk Tray; resolving to start diet in the morning;

·        Hates: Her own bottom, actually going on a diet; exercise; bossy, scary people; getting up in the morning; going to parties thrown by her mother's friends; work; people who say "how's your love life?"; communal changing rooms peopled by ghastly thin girls who go round saying "does it make me look fat?" to their obese friend who looks like a water buffalo in everything.