Character Development – The King’s Gift

Darling, I've finished my book!

Where do characters come from?  How do they insinuate themselves into your consciousness to the point that you have to give them life on paper?

I don’t know about you, but it is often a snippet in a larger work, a single mention of a person, an intriguing incident involving someone never heard of again.  The questions begin:  where did they come from, what happened to them afterwards?  So often there is no answer in the history books, especially if you are delving into very early history.

These are the questions I think actors ask of themselves when developing a character they need to play convincingly.  And writing has a large degree of the theatrical about it.  You are setting a stage, peopling it with characters, and directing the action.

I’m sure every writer of fiction has experienced that moment when the characters take over and will no longer do what you want them to.  They do seem to take on a life of their own and go off at unexpected tangents that sometimes necessitate quite a bit of rewriting!

Hugh Fitzwilliam morphed from a cardboard cut-out evil henchman of King John into a far more nuanced, interesting character as my writing progressed.  My original hero was the outlaw Robin Woodsman, but he got pushed to the sidelines by Hugh’s burgeoning personality, and his relationship to the heroine changed in consequence.  Hugh wouldn’t stay where he was put, insisting on making himself and his motives known.

Eleanor de Tracy developed from a stern abbess to a rebellious woman not reconciled to her incarceration in a remote convent.  From a settled and authoritative ruler of her nuns, she evolved into a restless and somewhat bitter woman struggling for resignation to her lot in life.  I have to confess I didn’t always like her, but she turned out to be a quick-witted, courageous, strong, independent woman within the limits of the time.

King John has always been a favourite of mine, the spoiled youngest child of very bad parents writ large.   Such an intriguingly human combination of cruelty and mercy, greed and generosity, humour and meanness, love of the law and lawless plundering and murder, high, refined education and savagery, personal capriciousness and desire for administrative order in his kingdom.  He did some good things in his time, but also some dreadful ones.    He was an interesting character to write, for the material is all there, but to fashion it into a man who could conceivably inspire a measure of affection as well as loyalty was an enjoyable challenge.  His relationship with Hugh is one of my favourite elements of the book.  It also provides most of the dramatic tension to the story.

As may be obvious, I have hero-worshipped the last two minor characters for many years. John D’Erleigh and William Marshal were easy to slot into the action as supporting characters, and gave Hugh an extra dimension as a valued part of their extended family, but one who would not presume upon the relationship. Their unshakeable loyalty to successive kings and their deep and loyal friendship with each other shines through contemporary documents.  The universal admiration of the hard men of their own time would have been hard earned and genuine.  Heck, any guy over seventy who can lead an army into battle, must be quite a man!


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