On Characters (Qot8B)

So, on one of our truck-drive commutes to WorldCon, M Williams and I realized that we both have a particular weakness when it comes to writing our characters.

In role-play, the world setting is a backdrop to our characters. We know or learn the world pretty quickly and then we spend the rest of our energy focusing entirely on our character (or characters). We know them inside out, backwards and forwards. They become living, breathing, fleshy creatures with strengths, weaknesses, fears, talents, backgrounds, and so on.

But for some odd reason, when we go to write a novel, we focus almost entirely on the world.  Flora, fauna, magic mechanics, society, history, warfare, etc. But when it comes to our protagonists, we know the barest minimum of what shape they hold in our minds.  Then we expect them to somehow enact a plot.

So we both came home from that commute with the determination to treat the characters in our novels with as much time and care as we treat the vivid people living in our heads from our role-playing.

Last week or so, however, I realized after writing about 2k of Queen of the Eight Banners that I did it again.  Firstly, that I ran away with the story idea without really knowing the world as much as I needed to. I was just so impatient to write the story. So I stopped and got my favorite library book on the topic and poured through it, developing the world.  Then I went to set Ilha my protagonist in that world and found that the world was richer than she was.

So this week I’ve slowed down again and have been focusing on her. Who she is, what makes her tick, where she comes from, what her goals are, what she’s afraid of–both in the world and in herself.

I’ve realized–patience is definitely a skill that transfers over to writing. That, and time. Time spent with the people, the world, the ideas.  I’m not the type who can just jump right in and write amazingly, though jumping in allowed me to see where all my holes were more clearly.

So, cool thing.  As I was researching the Jurchen coalition in the early 1600s for story fodder, I came across a Mongolian tribe that asked to join the Jurchen nation. As I described it to a friend,

They just trotted up to the growing Jurchen power and were like, “Excuse me, sir. We want to join our huge forces to yours. You see, there’s this enemy who wants our blood. And we are persuaded that you would be the perfect man to take them out for us. Oh yes, and we will help all your future endeavors. Oh yes, and did I say? We’re awesome?”

So I thought – wouldn’t it be politically savvy if Ilha were from this Mongolian tribe? It makes perfect sense to form a marriage alliance between such a powerful tribe and the Jurchen emperor.  So I tentatively noted that in the back of my mind.   Then I went to Wikipedia to jot down a quick succession of Jurchen/Manchu emperors, their wives, and the regents….

And Ilha, Dowager Empress’ historical equivalent – you guessed it – was from that exact Mongolian tribe I handpicked for her.  My eyes popped. But really, the tribe is politically perfect. Mongolian–so similar training and habits of the Jurchen people.  Marriage alliances meant adoption into the upper Banners and given Manchu status. And because the tribe volunteered to join, they weren’t split up. Huangtaiji/Hong Taiji let them rule their own people and made a whole section of his society just for them. They fought alongside each other, etc.  It really is truly awesome.  I love history. And politics. And politically savvy rulers.  Mmmmm…

In the mean time, my novel isn’t being entirely ignored. I’m allowing things to stew a bit, and there have been substantial additions. I realized as I was writing the last scenes where I am now that one of the newly introduced characters is from a third country that I didn’t even know existed.  (Yes, I was baffled, too.) Yet it fills world, economic and political holes in the world building, as well as bringing variety to my as yet small cast of characters.

I also ended up redrawing my old reference map so that now it has a functional mountain range as opposed to a decorative one.  It has a working river port city, and I got rid of  a grid of waystations that aren’t really necessary.  Oh yes, and that pesky third country now exists.

So now, who knows? Maybe there will be a third book in the world!  This one takes place in Melitene south of the mountain range in a land of forests, plains, and rivers. The next one, (a stand-alone prequel), takes place in Norlakhar in the deserty land above the pass.  And I suppose now there is potential for a third book set in the country I’m tentatively calling Galia, the country south of Melitene that’s positioned along the ocean and the river delta….

(This is a long post, if you haven’t noticed, but it will have to tide us over. I can’t make any guarantees about updates for the next two weeks. )

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