Thursday, June 17, 2010

Diary of Character Growth

Last week I posted about the story seed I'd been infested with. This week's post is kind of a diary of the things that have emerged since then - mostly character, which is usually the first or second thing I 'get', although there are likely to be other bits of world building and assorted strangeness as well. What I end up with on plot at this stage is usually a starting scenario and what the basic plot and main subplot are likely to be about.

Thursday: Characters begin to emerge. Two of them, one male, one female. Definite sense of a romance subplot. He insists his name is Alvar Seraph, which is... somewhat ridiculous. Arguments over the name begin. She is Millie - possibly short for Amelia or Millicent, although she's being rather close about that.

He's noble and might be willing to accept "Alvar" as a noble title rather than his actual name. It's got to be there, though. Yes, it's weird, but characters will not cooperate for me if I don't have their names right. Long white-blond hair, dark blue eyes - the kind that look like they could be black until you get close - carries a sword-cane. Early twenties, but has had responsibility for a whole lot of things since 14 or 15. His manner isn't so much arrogance as assurance: yes, he really is that good.

She's a street brat. Mama was a whore, and died of her pimp getting pissy. She figures begging, picking pockets and running whatever errands she can get paid for - and pretending to be a boy - is safer.

Okay, so we've got a massive social differential here. Fine. Possibly a Pygmalion aspect.
There's some bioengineering way back - probably from Earth for the spaceship crew, although no-one in story-now knows anything about it. They see an inheritable gift which allows the person who has it to feel the workings and effectiveness of machinery. They 'know' when everything is going well, when something needs maintenance, and when something is going to break. They need training to be able to consciously focus on the gift, and to actually do something about what they feel. They're in two classes: Mechanics can diagnose and fix when told what to do. Engineers can do all that as well as design new machines. Both groups are highly regarded.

He is - of course - an Engineer as well as a nobleman. She has the gift but was never talent-scouted even though the Imperial Academy of Mechanics and Engineering is supposed to find everyone with the gift and train them up: well-maintained machinery is essential to their survival, especially the dampers that keep volcanos from developing in the middle of the cities and the steam turbines that provide power to the cities - powered by diverting water into the volcanic regions to generate said steam.

Opening involves her sensing before he does that a set of dampers under a busy square is about to go, realizing he's got the gift and is more likely to get people out of the way than she is. She'd run away after that, only he's not letting anyone that talented get away from the Academy. The dampers go, but his orders prevent any deaths when a rift opens up across the middle of the square.

He drags her to the Academy - thinking she's the boy she looks like - and goes to arrange a team of Engineers to upgrade the dampers.

Friday: Okay, I was wrong. Milord Alvar is definitely an arrogant sod. Millie is an imp. Sarcastic, self-assured the way street-brats can be (think Gavroche from Les Mis the musical). She's going to cause chaos in the Academy, especially since the Dean of Admissions is one of those unsackable incompetents who gets shuffled to where he can do least damage. Said Dean has problems with well-born girls having the gift, thinks that low class boys who've got it must have got it from a noble ancestor somewhere, and can't possibly learn to be Engineers, and as for low class girls, well they must only be after one thing.

The Academy Arch-Chancellor is one of your ineffectual avuncular types, and really hasn't got a clue how to run things. He's there because he was the most senior staff member when the previous Arch-Chancellor died. Negotiating Imperial political appointments and talented students from the full social range is beyond him. He'd much rather be buried in designs for new mecs.

Social structure/culture is probably most like the British Empire towards the late 1800s, although the colonies have rather more representation than they ever did in the Brit Empire. At this point I think the story is entirely within the capital city (I don't have a name for that yet), but there is a much larger world out there. The Nightside barbarians are a constant threat to the outlying colonies. I'm not sure what/who they are yet, except that it's rather more than just 'barbarians'. I know that at least some of them are exiles and descendants of exiles.

And the little light-bulb just went on to inform me that Milord Alvar and Millie are going to be exiled by the end of this - hence book 2, Nightside.

Weekend: Conflating all of the weekend's news into one piece...

Milord Alvar is still being unfriendly about his name. Millie is a brat. She managed to give all the stick-in-the-mud types collective conniptions in very short order and ends up being taught by Milord Alvar who is amused by her antics rather than horrified - I'm not sure why he finds her amusing, but I imagine I'll find out eventually.

The ending of book 1 involves the Crown Prince, who is the grandson of the Emperor and a nasty piece of work. I'm not sure yet what he's into/up to, but at minimum there's slavery (which is supposedly outlawed) and attempting to arrange granddaddy's murder so he can have the throne. I'm not sure why he ends up crossing swords with Milord Alvar and Millie, but he does, and he dies in a spectacularly ugly fashion - which is why they end up more or less exiled (as in, they're not sure they'd get a fair trial and decide that discretion is the better part of survival).

Monday: His Imperial Majesty is getting to the end of a long life, and outlived all his children. He's still mentally with it, enough that he's got his heir tied up in layers of bureaucracy and is quietly looking for a way junior can have an unfortunate accident. That's not a problem. The problem is that it's kind of difficult to classify "sword cut from navel to chin" as an accident - which means he has to try and convict the culprit.

Tuesday: Well, well. Milord Alvar is in the line of inheritance - distantly, but close enough that if His Imperial Majesty chooses to select an heir rather than appoint his closest male descendant his heir, Milord Alvar is in the running. I think His Majesty hopes that after a suitable absence he can blame junior's death on someone who's already going to die - or already dead - and appoint Alvar his heir. It's not an option that gets used a lot because it causes civil wars: imperial princes tend to get a little upset when they're passed over for the distant cousin they never thought was worth considering.

Wednesday: Weird synchronicity. In the MMORPG I play for decompression I just got to the final world. The 'feel' of it is exactly the feel for this piece - advanced civilization corrupted and dying/dead. Oh, and parts of the cities crumbling into lava. No dragons, though, more's the pity.


Brendan said...

What's the MMORPG you play? Oh and the book/s are sounding good so far.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Lord Alvar can't stand ass-kissing toadies and incompetent people placed in positions of power simply because they seem to be breathing. The brat is therefore utterly delightful and massively entertaining to observe.

The name problems. It's the noble class. They accumulate titles that are virtually meaningless, now, but damned if they'll give them up. Alvar and Seraph are probably estates created by the original colonists, which have since been destroyed, nothing remaining but the titles. His other names may have been dictated by a toadying relative and close to His Imperial Majesty's names and about thirteen sons, grandsons, nephews and so forth.Probably the nasty Crown Prince has the same name. So he uses the titles, and thus everyone who is anyone knows who is meant. ;)

Sounds like an interesting world, couldn't help but dissect it. Don't you hate Characters who get pissy about their names? I've got one who's trying to reject hers. After she made me change it once already.

C Kelsey said...

This really does sound very fun. You describe your revelations about the characters and it sounds very similar to what happens with me. Sounds like your characters are having conversations with each other in your head too. ;)

Synova said...

It's fascinating to see the progression.

Do you find it helps to write it down like that?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lol, Kate, this is just he way I write. Finding out things as I go.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Thanks for sharing your process. Its fun isn't it, drawing all this together - the best part in some ways.

And the guys an Engineer! Cool.

Kate said...


The game is Wizard 101 - it's set up to be interesting for everything from preteen up.

The book/s will eventually clarify enough that I can start writing them. This phase usually takes a while: it's when I'm figuring out all the pieces and where they fit.

Kate said...


Milord Alvar certainly has a very low tolerance for stupid of any form, and particularly for the kind that tries to baffle with bullshit when they can't bedazzle with brilliance.

I suspect there's an element of commonly-used names, right along with interbreeding, in the noble class. I'm not sure exactly how it all works, but it's pretty close to what you've suggested.

The dissection helps - it crystallizes some of the vaguer aspects for me. I often figure stuff like this out on the fly while I'm talking them through with my writing group. And yeah, characters who get pissy about their names and won't talk to you until you get them right are such a pain.

Kate said...

Chris K,

I'd be interested to hear how other writers here build from their initial ideas. I've got a sneaking suspicion it's different for everyone.

Yes, they are chatting to each other in there - what's worse, they're not letting me hear what they're saying!

Kate said...


It does seem to be helping to clarify ideas - often at this phase I'm doing the equivalent by talking with friends and then saving the chat log for reference.

I'm glad you're finding it interesting - I thought it would be interesting to share because I don't recall ever seeing much about the progression from initial idea to full story.

Kate said...


It is something of an exploratory process, isn't it?

I've had at least one story where I didn't know how it would end until I wrote the ending. That was... unnerving.

Kate said...

Chris M,

It is fun, playing with the scenarios and fitting the world together. Everything is still so wide open that there are a lot of potential ways things could play out.

Glad you like the Engineer aspect :-) This is a world that values their sciences. Said sciences keeping them from being engulfed by lava might have something to do with it.

Synova said...

It really is interesting to hear the process an author goes through. I suppose there is always the off chance that someone will decide that this is The Way It Must Be Done, but it would be sad to avoid it on that account.

It's sort of like seeing an artist's preliminary sketches because it becomes less easy to imagine that the beginning artwork starts in the completed form and then be discouraged because whatever you do isn't.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate - I'm loving what you've got so far. This is sounding very promising, if the Characters will ever get around to sharing some clues for you to start crafting a plot out of.

How do others do this? The fantasy I'm working on (that you have a few chapters of) started with the ending of one of the primary plot-lines, actually. It sprang out, almost whole, as a really interesting (and devious) idea. The general shape of the villain and his/her major hench-things were pretty much defined by that idea, and it pointed me in a general direction of where to look for the heroes. World-building backward from that resolution-point has spawned enough complications that it's now looking like four volumes ...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

At least it's talkign to you. My current is doing the dance of the seven veils. Even getting the character's name was a struggle. I swear I'm getting literary thumbscrews.

Kate said...


Are you sure it's the dance of the seven veils? It sounds more like the character's in the final stages of a troll robing show.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, all I can say is write it. I want to read it. I want to read it now. Don't hit me. I'll give you a day or two to do it (runs). Seriously, I'm envious that it's coming to you as quickly as it is. I have one I want to write that is being as frustratingly silent as Sarah's, which isn't helped by the fact that the sequel for a book under consideration is demanding to be written in very strident terms. Any way, I am anxiously awaiting snippets ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have a very bad Character who's lobbying for a sequel. "You spent the last two weeks rewriting the whole book to give me a girlfriend, and then you killed her in the last chapter." His eyes drifted away tracking something behind me. No doubt it was female.

"Okay, so it wasn't love. It was more of a budding friendship, professional respect. I was kinda getting to like the spiky orange hair. And the parts you wouldn't actually write down. The thing is is, I'm now a Tragic Figure. My self confidence is Broken. I need a sequel in which to heal, to admit that her death wasn't my fault, to realize how terrific I really am." His eyes keep flicking to a young couple. They appear to be argueing.

"I mean, you've warped me into the Archetype of the Super Spy. The God of Spies must be . . . Did that guy just call his girlfriend that in public? Excuse me, some people just don't deserve love . . . "

And off he goes. Of course he's going to get the girl. The Super Spy always gets the girl. He also never finds True Love unless she's about to die. Remember that part Xen? Yeah, that's some heartbreak, Xen. How the heck am I going to write you as a tragic figure when you don't even believe it yourself, eh?

Kate said...


I would never suggest to anyone that the way things work for me is the way it Must Be Done - for all I know, everyone else works completely differently.

At the same time, I think doing this offers a bit of an insight into the kind of work that goes into translating an idea to a book - which is also something valuable.

Kate said...


I've had that too, where I start with how it ends and have to backfill to figure out the start and everything in between.

The complications can make it a whole lot of fun to write - and sometimes, you don't need to deal with them in the current book. Pratchett's a master at this: he'll have a side comment or running joke in his books that hints at something much bigger. Sometimes he gets to writing it. Sometimes he doesn't. Thud! came out of the running joke of Koom Valley - and became something much more potent in the process.

Kate said...


So, what do you want me not to do? There's Fakawi, a few other pieces of unfinished business, that other item you want for your Supr Sekrit Project, the day job that keeps me in house, food and internet... :-)

Besides, it's not ready yet. If I tried to start it now it would fizzle after 30 pages or so - so while it seems like there's a lot emerging, it's all background, not plot or character.

Kate said...


LMAO! Oh, so very true!

Although to be fair my issues usually arise from evil bastards making a play for redemption - or worse, evil bastards wanting to be heroes. I end up with heroes I've got to carefully edit so no-one sees them kicking the puppy. Metaphorically speaking, since all of them vehemently insist they would do no such thing.