Posts Tagged ‘Glamour in Glass’

Sometimes picking the protagonist for a story is easy. Your whole idea is built around a particular character, so you just go ahead and write them. Sometimes though it’s harder. You have an idea you want to explore, or a world, or you have part of what you want the character to be like, but not the whole package. So how do you pick the person at the centre of your story?

Mary Robinette Kowal offered some great guidance on this in an episode of Writing Excuses, my favourite source of writing guidance. She said that she thinks about the setting she’s created and who can be most hurt by the things that are different about it, then uses that as the starting point for the protagonist. It means that there’s instantly something at stake for the character and a sense of conflict inherent to the situation, ready to drive a story.

I was thinking about this as I read Glamour in Glass, the second book in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. You might think that in a magical Regency era there are more vulnerable characters than an upper class lady like Jane, the protagonist. But the setting isn’t just Regency England – it’s the upper class society of Regency England, and specifically the world of people using glamour magic within that. Once you view that as the setting, she’s the perfect choice. Her family’s well being and standing in their community is very dependent on who Jane and her sister marry, and Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and manipulations of others. And the exhausting price of using glamour sometimes puts her health at risk.

In the second book there’s even more at stake. Jane is a foreigner in a country in turmoil, someone seen as an enemy by the army threatening to descend on Belgium. Her husband is entangled in local events in ways she doesn’t know about, and not being trusted with information for essentially sexist reasons puts her at risk. The nature of glamour means that pregnant women cannot use this magic without risking the unborn child, meaning that she is heading towards a choice between losing the craft that gives her happiness and losing the chance to have a family. From this beginning the stakes are raised in a way that builds around Jane’s character, and eventually forces heartbreaking choices on her.

Like any advice, this way of picking a protagonist isn’t an absolute. When I wrote ‘Sunflowers in the Snow‘, last Friday’s story on this blog, I didn’t pick the people most hurt by the events I was portraying – the cloned Neanderthal community being excluded from human society. This was partly because I didn’t feel I had time within a very short story to build up their unique perspective. But it was also because a story needs a character who can have a transformative arc, and the Neanderthals were already in the place emotionally where I wanted the story to end. So I took someone who appears to be in a position of privilege, but whose values, power and principles are about to be put into conflict, and used him. It was someone who was being badly hurt by the situation, but not the most hurt.

And there are cases where I ignore this entirely. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the adventurer heroes of my Epiphany Club stories, definitely don’t start out from a place of peril. Similarly the stars of this coming Friday’s flash story were chosen out of necessity for that plot, not an approach I’d take for a longer work. As Terry Pratchett wrote, rules are there so that we think before we break them.

Have a think about your favourite protagonists. Are they inherently vulnerable or at odds with the world they live in? How so? And if you’re a writer, how do you pick your central characters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to see some other examples of how I put this into practice, please consider buying one of my ebook anthologies.

It’s the weekend and I’m home alone, so as soon as I catch up on work I’ll be getting down to some reading. And in case you’re also looking for something to read, here are a few recommendations of things I’m enjoying:

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

After spending half this week talking about the first of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories books, of course I’ve started on the second. Straight away it’s setting a different tone, with the protagonist having moved from a provincial Jane Austen style story to the Prince Regent’s court, and with talk of Napoleon and hints at adventure on the continent. While I was a little disappointed by the change in tone near the end of the first book, simply because it felt out of place, a whole book with that tone is something I’m looking forward to, and I love the portrayal of magic in the glamourist world.

Plus I’m a sucker for books that combine fantasy with issues of art and power.

Ultimate Comics Spider-man Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez

I’m not one of these guys who’ll read anything with Spider-man in it, but Bendis writes a fantastic Spidey. I like the way he shook up the Ultimate version of the character by replacing Peter Parker with Miles Morales. Miles is a very likeable character, and Bendis’s always smart dialogue is particularly great for these characters. This volume is a take on the classic story of a superhero trying to leave that life behind, only to get drawn back into heroism. It’s particularly poignant to see a teenager face the dilemma of how to handle that. I wasn’t familiar with Marquez before this book, but his art is clear and dynamic and well suited to Ultimate Spider-man. This is tonight’s light reading, but it’ll still have depth, and that’s why I love it.

The Rebel by Albert Camus

I’m not exactly going to rush through this one. Unless you’re looking for some heavy politically-oriented philosophy then it’s not for you, and I’m re-reading it just a few pages at a time as an aid to self-reflection. But for all their image as cigarette-smoking posers, and for all the potential bleakness of their insistence on discarding old sources of meaning, I find the French existentialists uplifting. Whether right or wrong, the idea that the only true value is the one we create seems particularly important when considering art, which as a writer I do on a daily basis. And in an era when we’re bombarded with meaningless choices, Camus reminds us that people have had to fight for that freedom, and that choice can be meaningful.

It helps that the guy looks so cool on the cover. Once again proving that the existentialists were posers as well as thinkers.

And if you’re looking for something else…

I won’t be reading my own books – I know how they all end – but if you’re looking for short stories then please check them out. There’s science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and even alternate history. You can read all about them here.

What are you lot reading this weekend? Any recommendations you’d like to share?