In stories, characters are as important (or maybe more important) than plot. They help the reader relate to the story-world, and they bring emotion to the work. Without characters, the story is just a bunch of stuff that happens.
So the writer has to know the characters. Many writers will make notes on all kinds of information that never appears in the novel, but it informs the portrayal of that character, making them more rounded, and more interesting to the reader.
There are lots of ways of doing this. Some writers have character questionnaires. Others ‘interview’ their characters, or write short passages in that character’s voice. And short stories can help too.
I’ve used all these techniques to give myself a better understanding of my characters, and today I’d like to point you to some of my short stories that helped me when I was writing the characters in the Dominions books. I’ve made some notes on these below. Some of these notes might include spoilers, but you can always read the story by clicking on the link/name of each one.
Despite being a cold, calculating killer, I always knew there was more to Rodin (mainly wrapped up in his forgotten past). To him, the perfect job was one where only the target dies, with minimal fuss and suffering. He planned to give as little chance as innocent people getting caught up in each contract.
But things have a tendency to go wrong, and there would always be times when Rodin was forced to kill to cover his tracks.
And then a question came to me—what would he do if he was disturbed, mid-killing, by a child. His cold, logical side would say that the child had to die, and he’d justify this by telling himself that everyone dies eventually, and that maybe he would be saving the child from future suffering.
But would he be able to go through with that, or would another part of his character stop him?
I didn’t know which way he’d go, so I wrote this story to find out.
From the moment I wrote Genna in Dark Glass, she was one of my favourite characters. She has strength, but its the kind that can be supple, bending round situations. And she has to be people-smart too—after all, she runs a district where everyone is out for themselves. She has to know how to play people.
She doesn’t have much time on the page in Dark Glass (although she is a far more important character in Riled Dogs, and will have a larger part to play in Dominions VI), but I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to see a part of a normal day for Genna.
I knew that a normal day would involve meetings, and that everyone she met would have their own agenda. I also knew that she’d use one of the most important weapons she has—information.
I like Jimny. He’s appeared in early drafts of every Dominions book so far, but I have been forced to cut him from all but Dark Glass and the mailing list exclusive novella Control (although he does appear, unnamed, in Expedient).
As with Genna, he is only seen when he is helping Rodin. But I wanted to explore his everyday life. I wanted to know what drove him. I knew he found pleasure in serving others, but I didn’t know which gave him more satisfaction—providing food and drink, or providing information.
The Customer Is Always Right allowed me to see this. It also (in a longer, earlier draft) told me some things about his father. But that story will have to wait.
Maybe when I write the next couple of Dominions novels, because he will return. I’m certain of that.
When I started writing the book that would become Dark Glass, I was making the story up as I went. I was also writing from multiple viewpoints, and one of these was that of Sertio, the sculptor.
This early draft never got beyond about ten thousand words, and much that I wrote then never made it into the proper version of the first Dominions book. But, through writing those early sections, I learnt a great deal about Sertio.
There are hints in Dark Glass, behind his flamboyance, but I though it would be interesting to write a short with Sertio as the central character. Already knowing some of the secrets of his past, I wanted to explore how he created his art, and discover what drove him.
This story doesn’t explain his past, but it does give an insight into his creative process (or maybe creative impetus). The idea of striving for perfection in art is not uncommon, but perfection is an aspiration, not a goal that can ever be achieved. Maybe this is where some of Sertio’s deeper melancholy comes from—the understanding that he will never achieve what he desires. Or maybe the need to keep on trying is a way of coping with his inner demons.
In Riled Dogs, Shorack is introduced as a strong character, leading his family to success in the dangerous world of the districts, but it isn’t long before he’s struggling. He needs the support of others, and comes across as, ultimately, rather weak.
That is his arc in Riled Dogs, but I wanted to know about his strength prior to that. I wanted to see him making tough decisions. I wanted to explore how he could lead a family that was as much a cut-throat business as a flesh-and-blood society.
And maybe he will regain his strength, in the Dominions books that are already in early planning.
So, five characters from the Dominions books, and five opportunities to dive into their characters a little more. I hope you enjoy these snapshots of their everyday lives (especially if you have read the Dominions books). And, as always, I’d love to hear any comments you have.