Today’s post comes from good friend and awesome writer, Jason Franks. Jason describes the genesis of a key character in his latest novel (a dark fantasy tale that I highly recommend).
Take it away, Jason…
My novel Faerie Apocalypse is about a series of mortals who travel to the faerie realms, each on their own distinctive quest. It was a tough book to write. I developed a new, more writerly style for the project, and I found that I had to treat the protagonists differently to the way that I normally would. Each protagonist offered their own difficulties, but none more so than the magus.
The magus is an evil magician with vast powers of destruction, who is also a working class Australian. He speaks with a raw Ocker accent; he delights in spouting vulgarities and clichés. He’s the Ugly Australian abroad—he’s gone native, but he hates the natives. He’s not the most powerful magician who ever lived, but he is a proud psychopath, and this makes him one of the most dangerous.
This expatriate Australian makes it his business to keep tourists out of the faerie realms. A hermit who lives in a magical tower, he only ventures out if there’s another unfortunate human around. A lot of Australians move abroad searching for success or influence or just to escape from the prison island—I myself did five years in the US—and that was my twist on the idea.
Initially the magus appears in another character’s chapter, as a villain, and I thought he worked well there, providing just the right counterpoint to the intricate prose and dialogue offered by the other characters. When it came time to give him his own chapter, though, things became difficult. Would readers be interested in seeing this human monster run amok and, eventually, run aground?
Unlike the other protagonists, I thought I would show the magus’ backstory, intercut with the fairy land narrative. The magus’ childhood, growing up in the care of an abusive widower. I had scenes showing the magus surviving Hurricane Tracy, which destroyed the city of Darwin in 1974. (Tracy was as remarkable for its compactness as for its destructive power. Almost as if it was… targeted.) I showed the magus dealing with puberty, and growing up to be a criminal. I showed the combination of curiosity and rage that leads him to discovering magic without a mentor or a guide.
These flashback sections were interspersed with the main thread in chronological order and match-cut into the scenes preceding or following them, so that the last flashback, near the end of the story, lead back to the opening scene in a kind of Escher loop. I worked damn hard on this arrangement, but the whole structure was too intricate. It was American Psycho in Fairy Land, only… Australian. It was just too complicated. The only fix was to remove the flashbacks… but it was still broken.
Without the backstory it became a simpler task. The magus’ chapter is linear and the character himself is quite straightforward: he makes no attempt to disguise his nature or his intent. He’s murdering psychopath, but he’s not a liar. Once I had cleared the way, it was easier to see what was really wrong with the chapter.
I dislike the old writing chestnut ‘characters need to grow and change’ almost as much as I dislike people who use the expression ‘old chestnut’. I think good writing doesn’t make characters change, it changes the way that we understand characters. Perhaps those characters come to recognize something new in themselves, or perhaps not, but to have them transform—a knave to a hero, a robot to a car—is to misunderstand what character really is. A knave is a knave, even if he’s sometimes a hero. A robot is a robot, even if it’s also a car.
That is what the chapter was lacking: revelation of character. We need to learn something about the magus. I didn’t want to redeem him, or even to make him sympathetic, but I thought it would be powerful to let him gain some self-awareness.
There were places where I allowed him to catch a glimpse, but the book really needed a moment… just one lucid moment… where he comes to understand that if he gets what he thinks he wants, he will destroy it, as he destroys everything he touches. The magus is defined by hate, and there is one thing he hates above all else: himself.
While writing this essay I went back through some older manuscripts, rereading the magus’ deleted backstory, and I found the following snippet. This is one of the dearest darlings I have ever murdered in writing a book. Fitting, I guess, that it was the magus who made me do it.
The magus spent most of his thirteenth summer confined within a bamboo cage, alone with the sun and the storms, without food or water, for as long as his body could endure.
“When you can handle pain,” said his father, “You can handle bloody well anything. When you know that you’ve already lived through the worst you can imagine, you’ll never fear any-bloody-thing again.
“Instead of fear you’ll learn to hate, and hate will make you strong.”
The magus came to learn that this was true. By his reckoning, trading fear for hatred was a profitable enterprise; for one’s capacity to fear is finite, but one’s capacity to hate is without limit.
Thanks for reading. I hope your own monsters are kinder to you than the magus has been to me.
Faerie Apocalypse is available from multiple sellers in multiple formats. Read the blurb and see the bookstore links here. I gave the novel an honest Goodreads and Amazon review of five stars.