In last week’s discussion of themes I mentioned the idea, ruthlessly cribbed from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, that characters in a novel do not exist in isolation. Instead they form a web, and their interactions through the plot push the story forward, cause the protagonists to change, and embody varying approaches to the novel’s central moral argument, its theme.
I also noted that at least in my case, themes arise from my subconscious mind. I discover them only after I complete the first draft (other people’s mileage no doubt varies, as the saying goes). Although I plan novels in various ways discussed elsewhere on this blog, my best writing appears when I fall into the zone where words pour onto the page and I become more a recorder than a planner. In the zone I write by instinct. Sometimes the results are kasha, but more often they have a flow that I can’t attain otherwise. Almost always they reveal elements of a character I hadn’t previously recognized. And those elements can surprise me.
Take, for example, Tulpar, an antagonist in The Winged Horse. When I set up that novel, I knew I wanted to explore the consequences of polygamy on the children, especially the sons, of men with multiple wives. Even judged by the standards of the Russian court in the 1530s, which forms the backdrop of the Legends novels and where the royal family could give the Borgias a run for their money, the Tatar successor states to the Mongol Empire had an extraordinarily large number of khans who came to power by assassinating their brothers.
In part, it was an example of “rule by the strongest”—carried to its extreme in the Ottoman Empire, where a system developed in which each concubine could have no more than one son and each sultan began his reign by tracking down and killing his half-brothers. But the reality that so many of the sons had different mothers must, I think, have also played a role in the conflict. Full brothers can, of course, hate each other and try to kill each other. And the half-brothers often fought together as well as against one another. Even so, I was curious about what role polygamy might play.
I decided to give Ogodai a half-brother, Tulpar, older than he and therefore stronger and more experienced, since an antagonist’s main role in a novel is to oppose the protagonist and thus force the protagonist to change. Most of us resist change, so the more powerful the antagonist, the greater the pressure on the hero/heroine to buckle down and do the hard work of self-improvement. Even in a romance, the hero and heroine typically act as antagonists for each other, at the same time as they are both protagonists. That’s why love stories so often start out with a man and woman who either dislike each other or see a situation in opposite ways. Without that conflict, the characters have no reason to change. There is no story.
So far, so good. But right away I ran into a problem: I hadn’t ever mentioned this older half-brother in The Golden Lynx. Well, how could I when I hadn’t created him yet? So I came up with a story for why no one in the family talked about him, and although I knew it was a bit far-fetched, it worked well enough for that book. The idea was for the two half-brothers to battle it out to the end, and may the best man win. They had plenty to fight over: a potential wife, leadership, bragging rights, a sexy concubine, even a philosophy of how this independent horde could preserve its freedom. The main difference between the brothers was character.
Then something happened. I realized that Tulpar was a perfect match for someone else in the series. How did I know? At the time, I couldn’t have said. I just thought, “Oh, those two so deserve each other. It would be great fun to throw them together and see what happens.” But looking back, I see that somehow I grasped that they were dealing with the same problem, but starting from very different places and approaching their troubles in very different ways. Their assumptions and reactions would push them to change, then support them as they changed. Even then, it took a third character to intervene and show me (and them) how the change could come about. A character who knew the hidden story and could act as an intermediary—and no, I won’t tell you more than that. You have to read the book to find out!
Getting from Point A to Point B took a lot of work. I had to twist things around so the new story could emerge from the old one. I had to go back to the far-fetched explanation and completely rework it so that it would make sense from the perspective of this character who had revealed his hidden depths in that unexpected way. I had to figure out how that realization altered what I could demand of him. Most important, I needed to understand how Tulpar’s view of the world would interact with that of the other characters. Where was the web? Who else in the series shared these issues, and how would they contribute to the whole? But the effort was worth it, every bit, because it made for a better story. And in the process I fell in love with them, as I do with all my main characters; otherwise I can’t write them.
It took me most of the first draft of The Vermilion Bird to answer the questions. And wouldn’t you know? Halfway through another character decided to share her story. I never did find a way to work it into this novel, and I am not certain this particular character would ever undertake the difficult work of personal growth. So I have yet to decide what to do with this information. Perhaps she will always lurk in the background, an amusing distraction, a perennial secondary figure.
But I’m laying the groundwork, just in case. Because I wouldn’t put it past her to take over a novel of her own. Call it writers’ intuition. It’s happened before.
Image: Clipart no. 314581