Shades of characters – Introduction


It is A to Z time.

Until two days ago I was thinking very hard about participating, but I concluded that this year I would have to sit it out as a poster.  I am trying to meet a deadline on the second installment of a trilogy, work is hectic and I’m tired.

That does not mean that I won’t be enjoying it.  I will be reading and cheering and clicking and commenting and following during the A to Z blogfest. 

Instead of my participation, and well aware that I will be lost in the wave of awesomeness that I plan to follow, I decided to bow to an urge I’ve felt for a long time and begin a series of regular posts on a subject that I have always enjoyed:
Heroes—Villains—Protagonists—Antagonists—Nice guys—Jerks
What are they?  And in any given work of fiction or, for my purposes, in a movie, who is which? We tend to blur things.
We have definitions of all these:  (from Merriam-Webster Online.  I wanted to use the Oxford English Dictionary, but $295 per year for a subscription was not do-able).  I will follow them in my series of posts.  I will say right now that ‘hero’ encompasses male and female, as does ‘villain’.

Hero:
a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities
the chief character in a story, play, movie, etc.


Villain:
a character in a story, movie, etc., who does bad things


Protagonist

1 the principal character in a literary work (as a drama or story)
a leading actor, character, or participant in a literary work or real event
Antagonist
one that contends with or opposes another :  adversary, opponent
Nice guy
think vanilla and good as gold.
Jerk
an annoyingly stupid or foolish person
an unlikable person; especially :  one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded
It’s a subject I enjoy. I have some questions whose answers should be amusing:  

  • Can one be a hero and yet a secondary character?  
  • Can one be the protagonist and yet be a villain?  
  • Can you have more than one hero?  
  • Does a villain have to be a jerk?  
  • Are antagonists necessarily villainous?
As the King of Siam might say, Is a Puzzlement:



I’ll explore those in my posts.  I think it will be fun.  Will I use my own characters?  Probably not.  Drooling is so unappealing.
My first in the series will be Wednesday, April 2.

Uppity Characters



Dorothy Sayers wrote an excellent and fascinating book with the title The Mind of the Maker.  It is actually a treatise on the theology of the Trinity – but since it is told from the focus of a writer, specifically, it is a wonderful read.  You can find  it HERE on Amazon.

She talks of the three parts to a work – the Idea behind the work, the Energy involved in creating the work, and the Power that arises from the work – the reaction that readers have to it, and the way it changes them.  My copy is hopelessly marked up.

One of the most enjoyable discussions (for me) is her talk about the nature of characters, and how they have to arise out of a plot and be firmly centered in the plot to have any reality.  She gives as an example a passage from Writing Aloud by J D Beresford in which he tells about his attempt to write a book based on a character that he dreamed up.  It was a shambles.  The minute he put this character into a story, other characters, arising from the story itself, and conceived of as being in a situation took over.  They were immensely more powerful and more compelling.

Interesting, I thought all those years ago.  Something to mull over and marvel at.

And then it happened in my writing.

Pharaoh’s Son takes its title for the literal translation of the Egyptian term for ‘Prince’.  It is ‘King’s Son’, or ‘Pharaoh’s Son’.  Since the book involves a number of princes, I thought it appropriate.

The main character is a son of Ramesses the Great, well-attested in history with a character that comes through clearly across the centuries.  Historically, he was a scholar and was credited with being the first archaeologist in history.  He served as High Priest of Ptah and Governor of Memphis, and was Crown Prince at the end of his life.  He fulfilled these roles with such distinction that he was remembered as a wise man for centuries after his death.

With these attributes, how can such a character help but be splendid?

Well, my would-be main character was overshadowed by his brother, the Crown Prince of Egypt, who stepped into the story as a quasi-villain, had a turnaround, and ended up stealing the show.  A character in a situation, he was far more powerful than his brother, far more interesting…

The original hero ended up holding his own, and we had two main characters.  It worked.

And it provided for me  a very good illustration of Beresford’s situation.

The Trouble With Characters in Stories that You Write…


…Is that you have endowed them with life, personality, virtues (and vices).  While they move through your imagination and by the reality you have given them shape the course of your stories, you can’t sit down with them, talk about your own trials, troubles, hopes and heartaches, and receive a response.

That is the drawback to characters.

You love them, follow them, mold them, and guide them – and they cannot love you back.

To shift away from this profundity, let me remark that I have only twice had characters from my stories appear in my dreams.

The first time, I dreamed that the receptionist where I worked had called me to tell me that I had…visitors…in the lobby.  I hurried out there to find:

an early renaissance mercenary
an ancient Egyptian archer
a Colonel of Cavalry in the Union army
a Norse type fantasy character

They had somehow heard that I was unhappy (not sure where that came from, since I loved the job).  I had to convince them that I was fine.  The Egyptian was still inclined to nock an arrow and patrol the office, his narrowed eyes moving back and forth.

The second dream was darker.  I had to meet someone, and I had to park on a dangerous street.  I was worried – until I saw the main character of my French story standing at a distance, watching…  I felt safe.

In The Works – Lord of the Two Lands


This is from a story with the tentative title Lord of the Two Lands.  It takes place two hundred years after Pharaoh’s Son.  I had a strong idea of a character (years ago) and jotted down some things.  I had an idea, suddenly, for a scene, wrote it (or risk forgetting it) and the story has taken off.  Alas, it is on ‘the back burner’ because I must finish Mourningtide, which is going well.  But still…  It’s delightful to know that the springs have not run dry.
This takes place after a battle.  The king has been captured by rebels, who are holding him in a courtyard.  Herihor, who is to all intents and purposes the de facto  ruler of southern Egypt, has just arrived at the end of the fighting.  He has  found Pharaoh where he is being held. 

Herihor stopped and stared. 

A torch lay in a shallow pottery bowl, spilling light across the wall’s carved relief: Pharaoh lunged forward, his fist clenched on his foe’s upraised arm, the swing of his war mace caught at the moment before it descended. Movement – emotion: Pharaoh triumphant. It was magnificent, vibrant, awe-inspiring, from the king’s jutting jaw to the despairing faces of his foes. The dynamic thrust of the leg, driving into the ground, brought his eyes down in a diagonal to a figure at the carving’s feet.
 
 

A man stood half-collapsed against the wall, his shoulder against it, his lowered head turned toward it, catching the lingering warmth of the stone in the fading day. As Herihor watched, the man pushed away, staggering a little, and looked up at the carving.


The thought came unbidden: A flame cast by a shadow.

 

He had made some slight noise. The man glanced over his shoulder and then turned to face him with raised head. His hands and arms were bound behind him, wrist and elbow. They had not been gentle with the ropes. He was pale with exhaustion, blood was caked in his hair and sweat made lighter streaks in his dusty face, but the black eyes that traveled scornfully from Herihor’s feet to his face were as sharp as Herihor remembered. “You, too,” he said.


The contempt in his voice made Herihor wince as he moved forward. “Sire-“


Pharaoh frowned. “Will you spare my troops?” he asked.

 

Herihor stared. Blood was trailing from the side of the man’s mouth and he saw the dark smudge of a bruise at the side of his face.

 

Pharaoh tried to shake the hair from his eyes. “I am defeated: I admit it. How can I not? Do with me as it pleases you. My only request is this: those soldiers that fought for me, those cities and temples that assisted me, did so out of loyalty to their king. I beg you: do not fault them or punish them when you set up your–your dynasty. They will love you and yours all the more for that.”

 

The gallant generosity of that speech made Herihor pause and look down. He drew his dagger after a moment and stepped forward.


Pharaoh watched the knife leave its sheath. He lifted his chin and faced Herihor more fully.

The Author’s Pet


I read a book a while back that had me puzzled.  It was well crafted, colorful, moved at a good pace, but there was something skewed…  I put my finger on it when I reread the description of the hero.  He was just fabulous.  His name consisted of four luscious, historical names strung together.  He was a duke, the king’s best friend.  But the thing that brought everything into focus was his physical description, right down to his blond sideburns, in lingering detail.  Gosh, he was handsome, with that bloom of golden hairs that bordered those sideburns. 

Yep,  I thought.  An author’s pet.

You run into them fairly often in detective series.  The characters who set foot in a messy situation and you just know that things will be straightened out at once.  They’re always fabulously handsome or beautiful, unbelievably accomplished.

A recent series of mysteries had as its main sleuth a woman who was, among other things, an Olympic Equestrian, a (top winning) competitive ballroom dancer in addition to being young, beautiful, and a top-ranking forensic anthropologist.  I wasn’t sure when she slept.  Another story featured a female sleuth, fresh out of college, who happened to be visiting the UK when a bad situation came up.  She was summoned to Scotland Yard and had an interview with one of the top-ranking people there.

“I want you to assist us with this,” he says to her.  “We need your trained mind.”

Trained mind?  I thought.  In a kid that age?  Well, to be fair, it was the writer’s first book, and from what I could see he/she was trading on the fact that his/her mother was a best-selling author.  And the writer had quite an author’s pet.

Writers do have them.  I have a character who could be one.  I love writing about him.  He’s a lot of fun, lends a lot of color to his stories (I’m working on a sequel).  He’s my own invention – except for his name, which is historical.  Who is he?  An Egyptian crown prince.  Named for the eldest son of Ramesses II, but I went off on a tangent with his story.

I don’t think he is quite the ‘ta-DA!’ sort.  I worked very hard to keep him from being one.  He has his own reality.

I think what lies at the heart of ‘Authors’ Pets’ is the author imposing his or her own desires on the character without taking into account the personality of the character as developed through the author’s writing.  The moment you put words on paper they become real.  If you have something happen in your story, it is fact.  So, if in the course of a story you have a character that behaves in a certain way and has (at least in your mind) certain characteristics, then everything he does must be in conformity with his reality as you have given it.

My Crown Prince character (his name is ‘Hori’) started out as a villain of sorts.  About twenty years ago I started writing various vignettes based on books I was working on at the time.  This was before I had a computer and electronic storage ability.  These vignettes (I called them ‘fragments’ or ‘blips’) occurred to me and I typed them out.  I had several stories based on the character of Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses and, at one point, his crown prince.  We know a fair amount about him.  In the course of weaving stories around him, I jotted an account of a jubilee festival that he hosted for his father when he was High Priest at Memphis.

His older brother, Amunhorkhepechef, the Crown Prince, makes an appearance and says something nasty. 

The jottings sit in a three-ring binder, but Pharaoh’s Son owes some of its substance to them.  In that novel a colossal statue falls in the middle of a festival throng, causing havoc.  Khaemwaset (from now on ‘Khay’) looks into matters; it happened in his own backyard, since he is the Vizier, or Prime Minister, of Northern Egypt, and the High Priest of the temple where it occurred.  He asks for assistance from Pharaoh, who sends his Crown Prince, Amunhorkhepechef (from now on ‘Hori’) to oversee things with his brother.

Hori was not a happy fellow.  He was arrogant, had a sharp tongue, and did not suffer fools gladly.  He strode into the story…

When you write about someone, you work both forward (in time) and backward (in history).  Going forward the character might do something…but that may have arisen out of something that happened before.  So it was with Hori.  His history developed – soldier who is happiest overseeing the military concerns of the realm, called back to court against his wishes and angry and unhappy.  So why did Khay ask for him?  Hm…  Because they had renewed their friendship and Khay knew that Hori was unhappy.

The story moved from there.  A character that was supposed to be, if not a villain, certainly an unpleasant sort of person with humorous involvement, became one of the two heroes of the story.  I guess I let him grow up.

I’ve read books where the characters appear to have been stamped out and maneuvered like puppets.  I’ve read scenes that, given the characters’ personalities and histories as developed in the course of the story, should never have happened.  Well…

Georgette Heyer, in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, expresses things nicely:

These naïve words struck Phoebe dumb for several moments.  It had not previously occurred to her that Ianthe might identify herself with The Lost Heir‘s golden-haired sister.  Having very little interest in mere heroes and heroines she had done no more than depict two staggeringly beautiful puppets, endow them with every known virtue, and cast them into a series of hair-raising adventures from which, she privately considered, it was extremely improbable they would ever have extricated themselves.

It’s all part of letting go, letting the thing you love – in this case the story and the character – be true to itself.