Saturday, June 13, 2020

So Where Did My Characters Come From?

[This post was inspired by the following post on The Story Reading Ape’s blog.  Thanks, Chris!] 

TSRA’s article ends with a question: “What books do you love that have teenage protagonists? Have you ever written a story from a teenager’s point of view?”

Unfortunately, my response strayed from answering that question, so I’ll just say, not really.  I don’t recall ever loving a book with a teenage protagonist.  In fact, current young adult books as a rule leave me cold – the few that I’ve read always seem contrived and shallow.  Now, my series The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars is a fictional biography, so part of the first volume does deal with Robbin Nikalishin’s childhood and adolescence but only because what happens to him then is foundational to the rest of his life.  Otherwise, most of my characters are adults, with a few exceptions.  In The Blessing of Krozem (not published yet) Halrab is 28 at the beginning of the story, which is just past adolescence in that culture; and in Children of the Music, two important characters are children (seven and five years old), but that book was written for adults.
I should say I didn't read fantasy as a child, except for the Oz books – I read a lot of those because we had a close friend who was crazy about them and made sure I had a big supply.  Oh, and I also read Dr. Doolittle.  There were only two of those books that stuck in my mind – Mudface the Turtle (where a giant sea turtle carries two youngsters to the new world during Noah's flood and that's how that region got populated) and The Canary Opera (Note a burgeoning interest in language and in talking animals, essentially aliens).  I credit Mudface with the beginning of my interest in anthropology.  But there were two books (or types of books) that really molded my development.
The Secret Garden (HarperClassics)

The first was The Secret Garden. It probably would be considered MG today, but I read it 14 times the year I was 8 and had the whole first chapter memorized.  It has children (not adolescents) as the chief characters, but they develop and grow in the manner of much adult literary fiction, and the psychology of Colin in particular is quite comprehensible.  I think my interest in how the minds and characters of my MCs develop probably stems from being so immersed in that book.
And then the second influence was historical fiction.  I believe the first thing I ever read that had a historical (and medieval) setting was Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray.  But it wasn’t long before I discovered Alexandre Dumas!  Swashbuckling stories became my thing!  At the same age I was reading The Secret Garden, I found in the school library a bowdlerized version of The Three Musketeers, and that was it – I was hooked!  At the age of 10 I read the (unbowdlerized) Count of Monte Cristo.  I read that one many times, also.  It probably wasn’t suitable for my age (do you want your 10-year-old learning what “infanticide” is?) but I was fascinated by the character of the Count and how his experiences stimulated his later actions.  When I was 12, I read every book by Dumas – all the Three Musketeers books and some things I don’t even remember now.  At fourteen I read The Black Tulip, which is not like Dumas’s other books at all.  It’s about the tulip craze in the 16th century, which I had never heard of, but there was a certain charm about that book that none of his other books had.

The Count of Monte Cristo (Bantam Classics)
 And then there was The Prisoner of Zenda when I was twelve.  It was my first introduction to an imaginary land (or as my conlanger friends prefer, a constructed world), although Ruritania is really an imaginary country.  (Well, I guess Oz is a constructed world, but I had no concept of that at the time.)  After Zenda I made my own imaginary countries and drew castles and maps – lots of fun.  And the imaginary country idea is why I really liked Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena setting, many years later.
I mustn’t omit my Roman period.  When I was ten years old, the movie Quo Vadis came out, and I became fascinated by all things Roman.  A new period of history to opened up before me.  I read the book of Quo Vadis – another tale most parents wouldn’t approve for their ten-year-old, but I was captivated by it, and I learned a lot.
Quo Vadis
I read some of what today would be called YA.  I liked the nursing series – Cherry Ames and Sue Barton – but I hated Nancy Drew.  I only read a couple, I think.  I remember it felt completely unrealistic.  No girl of the age of 16 that I knew had her own car and ran around solving crimes on her own.  But I soon discovered adult mysteries, particularly Ellery Queen.  And Sherlock Holmes – I read every one of his stories when I was twelve!
And then of course my mother was an English and Romance Language teacher, and because of her, my interest in languages developed, and I got into Shakespeare.  That kind of goes along with the historical swashbuckling theme.  I read a lot that was not required in school, and for Christmas when I was fourteen, I asked my mother for a Complete Shakespeare.  I still have that book.
Then I went to college, intending to major in history.  But I hated my history teachers in my freshman year and I loved my English teacher, so English literature became the major of choice.  After that I read mostly literary fiction.  Then at the age of 29 I finally discovered Tolkien and to coin a cliché, the rest is history (or fantasy).  It was actually several more years before I read any science fiction, and when I did, I discovered LeGuin.  I’ve always said I got into SF through the back door of fantasy.

And all of these things influenced the kinds of characters I write about.  The concept of a weak or troubled male character who has to overcome a lot of odds probably began with Colin and his father in The Secret Garden, proceeded with the Count of Monte Cristo, and shows up in Griffen Gwidian in The Termite Queen and in Gilzara in The Blessing of Krozem.  My female characters are usually stronger types, particularly Kaitrin Oliva in The Termite Queen.  I think they began with Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.  I’m not sure where Robbin Nikalishin came from – probably a combination with the swashbuckling D’Artagnan and the troubled man who has to overcome a lot of odds, ultimately realizing he must give up retribution as a motivator, like the Count of Monte Cristo. 
And what about the conundrum of my termites? I presume they came from Mudface and the talking animals, and from Shakespeare and from Greek myths, and from a growing interest in science.  Ki’shto’ba is a quintessential hero, but it commits the sin of Hercules, who killed his children, and so has to atone and find redemption (a favorite theme of mine) through the Twelve Labors and the visit to the Underworld.  Za’dut is the ultimate Trickster character, which turns up a lot in Dumas, and the villains owe a lot to characters like Cassius and Iago and Cardinal Richelieu. 

The best conclusion I can draw is that the influences of our younger days, whether actual or vicarious experiences, come together to make us the writers that we are.

And so I present my heroic termites!  


  1. So interesting, Lorinda! I admit I liked the Nancy Drew books. I didn't see her as another kid, but maybe something akin to a superhero (without cape and tights). Two of my favourites as a child were Volume 1 of The Jungle Book and The Wind in the Willows. I also read a bunch of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, which I found fascinating and sort of horrible. And Algernon Blackwood's story "The Willows," which I still consider a masterpiece. It scared the pants off me at age 12! I guess I'm sort of drawn to characters who need to atone, specifically my version of Herbert West. Thanks for this great post!

    1. I grew up without a lot of masculine influence, so at the age of 12 I doubt if I even knew what a superhero was, although I'm sure I'd heard of Superman. I also liked The Jungle Book, but I managed to miss The Wind in the Willows. I read it a few years ago and loved it! And I fear I don't know Algernon Blackwood at all. Maybe the fact you're also drawn to characters who need to atone is why you enjoy Robbin Nikalishin, who has to grow painfully into his role as Superhero. As for writing about adolescents, I found that your narrative of Herbert West's childhood and adolecence helped the reader to understand how he became what he was later.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. An author’s mind is an amalgam of real and imagined worlds, wrapped up in one brain.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris!