Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Flesh on the Bones

Between Sarah's discussion of empathy, Rowena's talk of bent characters, and Dave's lament on the futility of forcing them to do what you want once they've come to life, I'm left without much choice for my first appearance as a new Mad Genius. The character in question is giving me the smirk that says "Next time trust me. I know better than you."

So without further ado, I shall ramble for a while on the process that finished with Prince Vlad Draculea taking up residence inside my head as a very real person.

For many years before I started writing Impaler, I was fascinated by the historical Prince Draculea (BTW: the spelling is the closest Anglicization of the way he spelled his name. Just another example of character stubborn. He won't let me spell it any other way). What I had was pretty much what any writer has in the early stages of story generation long before there's any conscious move to write the thing: a mix of 'this is a neat idea' and someone who does or did interesting stuff. Add to that the question, "What if he had survived the assassination attempt?" and I had my story.

What I didn't have was my character. Instead, I had a huge problem. How does one depict a man whose name is associated with the most appalling atrocities (and let's face it, they didn't call him 'the Impaler' because he was a nice guy) or the Stoker vampire? He was the central character of the story, but whitewashing his deeds was out of the question. I didn't consciously wonder how I could show him in a more sympathetic light, but the question gnawed at me for about a year between when I first jotted down the rough plot outline and when I started to write. In the meantime, I wrote a completely different novel, ConVent, which is under consideration at Baen.

And I read everything I could lay hands on about Draculea and his times. Translations of period accounts of the Siege of Constantinople (eye-opening, to say the least), reading and re-reading the various Draculea legends, and gradually building from the bare facts and the legends an idea of what kind of man Draculea might actually have been.

Probably the most useful thing I did was wonder, "Why?". Asking myself why Draculea would have acted the way he did helped me to understand the era, as well as the man, and led me to some truly mind-boggling bits of 15th century trivia along the way.

I originally intended to write Impaler as mostly Draculea's point of view, with a few key scenes from other POVs. Instead, somewhere as I reread one of the Florescu and McNally biographies, I got him. Somehow, the constant "well, why would he do that?" had fleshed out the man enough that he was there in my head, dictating the book to me.

From there it was a case of balance: showing Draculea's human side through his narrative without flinching from the worst of his nature. The end result was good enough to make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finals, and is currently on an agent's desk in its entirety.

I'll finish with a few paragraphs from the opening so you can judge for yourself how well I fleshed out the man and brought him to life, and whether you can identify with him.

Impaler
Chapter 1

Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.

Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord's grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one's subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.

I do not allow others to see my weakness. Few great lords care for the fate of those in their domains. That I of all men should do so would seem the most grotesque of jests. I, whose name echoes through Europe as a byword for atrocity. And yet, I am driven to pray for those whose lives will end on the battlefield this day, men whose only crime is to obey the commands of their lords.

12 comments:

KylieQ said...

I'm hooked! Can't wait to read the rest...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

What people forget is that times were really brutal. (Not that I approve of impaling people).

Men were abducted from the towns and press ganged to serve on Her/His Majesty's navy. Discipline was horrendous.

Kate said...

Kylie,

Thanks! Hopefully it will sell and you can read it in the near-ish future.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Yes, it was a savage period. Draculea was on the wrong side of 15th century bad press: what he did was actually no worse than any of his contemporaries - and in some ways he was a better man.

He was one of the few rulers of that region and era who didn't break treaties, for a start, and unless he was in one of his insane rages, when he impaled people he had what were for the times perfectly valid reasons for it.

Some of the contemporary accounts are quite startling to our eyes - in a lot of ways that era is alien to us.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Depends on the people! I have a little list!

WangZheng259 said...

Kate,
It is an alien period to us at the moment, but this will not necessarily always be so. Perhaps some of us might survive a return to a more typical society, and also see him as alien from the other side. Even neglecting that possibility, perhaps one can still be an uncivilized barbarian without overmuch humaneness, while still living in a modern city, obeying modern laws, and clinging to modern mores more often then not. I also enjoy reading Tom Kratman, and I do not think the historical Mr. Tepes is worse then Mr. Carrera or Mr. Buckman. I likely would not have named the account after Wang Zheng a.k.a. Qin Shi Huangdi a.k.a. the traditional Chinese Hitler if I were so squeemish. (I think Han histories tend to unfairly vilify Mr. Zheng, but he does tend to offend some of my American sensibilities.)

The past is another country. Populations of different countries tend to be mutually culturally alien to varying degrees. Cultural differences can be hard to distingush from insanity, to the degree that the American Psylogical Association does not recommend using its diagnostic criteria for foreign populations.

The story sounds interesting to me.

Dave Freer said...

Put me down for a copy. I hope that someone has the common sense to buy it, although sanitised history which conforms to the certain modern mored - not existant at that time is generally prefered.

Kate said...

Sarah,

I've got a little list, I've got a little list... of society offenders who might well be on a stake, they never would be missed! They never would be missed.

(so sorry. Couldn't resist)

Kate said...

WangZheng,

You are absolutely correct. There's a very human tendency to assume that "I am just like everyone else" - and boy does it get people into horrible messes.

That said, it was certainly an interesting challenge to portray the mores of late 15th century Eastern Europe in a way that would allow modern Westerners to empathize with Vlad without turning the era into "modern day America with swords".

Kate said...

Dave,

Thanks! You're right about the sanitized history thing, and it's maddening. That's why I went digging through translations of period accounts - they didn't just tell me about the events I was looking at, but gave a very interesting peek into the mindset of the times.

Figuring out what Draculea would take for granted and what would strike him as interesting or unusual was quite the challenge. Portraying it in a way that wouldn't send modern readers running to worship the porcelain was a very different challenge!

WangZheng259 said...

Kate,
I've often found situations that illustrate the differences between me and others in a rather entertaining manner. For example, it would be a very severe mistake to make laws based on treating people the way I would want to be treated.
As far as the idea of modern day America with swords goes, I would argue that guns are actually fairly integral to the way things work here, and that swapping out guns for swords tends to result in a wildly different society if one can manage to do the bookkeeping properly.
I remember that I used to read a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff. In one book in particular she had a Roman Centurian with an abnormally small (for his time and culture) taste for bloodsport, which served the plot and the purpose of allowing kids to empathize with him easier.
I expect you did a good job, and look forward to seeing it.

Kate said...

WangZhen,

That's a very useful technique to show up differences and culture, as well as to build sympathy with a character.

Someone in what's effectively an alien environment is going to 'feel' more like us to modern Western readers which will automatically build a degree of empathy.

It's always a case of balancing the various bits and pieces, whichever way you make that character sympathetic.