This is a post about the writing process. It contains spoilers for Cold Magic and Cold Fire. In it, I discuss choices I made and ways in which I changed my mind throughout the drafting process. If you don’t want spoilers (and you’ve not read the books) or if you prefer to interact with only the final product and not see into a writer’s head as she discusses the process or if you’re not interested in reading about the writing process, READ NO FARTHER.
If you’ve read the books (or don’t care about spoilers), and if you find process interesting, read on. iow, this is a post for those who like the commentary on DVDs. Me, I never listen to that commentary. I like to see the final product in its pristine state. However, I’m happy to offer the commentary for those who are interested.
In the original conception of Cold Magic, a mage comes to the house with a legal claim to marry the girl. This story has always had the “forced marriage” trope as part of the plot. A “forced marriage” is any story in which two people have to get married because of outside forces. One might have to marry to secure an inheritance while the partner needs to marry because because she or he is destitute. An accidental encounter might impel them to marry because of societal strictures or for convenience’s sake. A fraud marriage might turn into a real marriage. Or they might both be required to accept a marriage arranged by others for reasons of political or economic or family alliance. And so on.
Cat was always going to have to marry a strange man who walked into her house with an unshakeable claim to her.
And the man was always of higher social status than Cat and her household.
When I first had him walk into the house, in the very earliest version as I was writing the scene for the first time, this man was older, about 30, a sophisticated and knowledgable man of privilege at the height of his powers and well aware of his status. But as I wrote that initial encounter I realized I was reluctant to write the Experienced Masterful Man meets the Naive And Innocent Girl plot.
More importantly, Andevai himself kept falling out of focus as I wrote. If I tried to slot him into the older sophisticated man role, he got blurred; he didn’t work. As I wrote the dialogue, his replies and responses remained arrogant and proud but increasingly I sensed they were touched with something else, and that something else I eventually identified as insecurity. He was an asshole in part because he was genuinely overly proud and vain and a jerk, but more so because he was covering for something. I just didn’t know what he was insecure about. In writing the first draft of Cold Magic, as I unfolded Cat’s journey, I discovered Andevai’s character.
First, he was younger than I had thought, 23 going on 24. He had therefore some of the faults of youth: He lacked perspective and the ability to step back and use experience to measure his situation. He had a young man’s hyper-awareness of and defensiveness about how he may appear to others. He knew less than he claimed, but tried to cover it up.
Additionally, once I stepped back and let his reactions come from my gut rather than my head, I discovered that he was prickly about matters of status in a way that people who are steeped in their own privilege aren’t. Indeed, he didn’t get along with the high status stewards and officials of the mage Houses, or it might be better to say that they could barely deign to respect him and he reacted to that defensively. When the characters reached the Griffin Inn in South Londun, he treated the innkeeper with disdain in a way out of proportion to the situation, a classic mark of youthful insecurity, but when old men of humble birth asked him to sit with them, his manners changed entirely to a tone of respect and deference. Why the difference?
In this first draft, it was not until Cat and Andevai reached the lands under the rule of Four Moons House that, out of the blue, the secret of his background opened up literally as I wrote: He was not born “in the House” but in one of its client villages. He was in fact born into a legal status somewhere between indentured servitude and slavery, beholden by law (with the rest of his village) to serve the House because of an ancient contractual arrangement.
The scene in which he gets out of the carriage and goes over to greet a field worker, a young woman, who he then confesses to Cat is his sister, was the first time I began to fully understand the complicated emotional landscape which he was trying (and mostly failing) to negotiate. Born into the humblest rank, he had been elevated to a high station, and now no longer fit into either place.
In the world of Cold Magic and its sequels, the highest level of societally acknowledged and embedded privilege and status is embodied in a man of African ancestry. (A man because this is still a society ruled in a patriarchal manner, although as it turns out–more on this in book three–the mage Houses are more of what I would call a “soft patriarchy” by which I mean one in which men are the public rulers but women’s skills and strengths are considered crucial to the success of the clan in a way that includes but is not limited to child-bearing.)
I did this not to reverse roles or to place people of European ancestry in an underprivileged position (as if to prove that white people can be oppressed too). There are plenty of high status men (and women) of Celtic, Roman, Iberian, and other Europan ancestry in the story, exemplified by Brennan Du, Lord Marius, and even General Camjiata (who, like most people the reader meets, is mixed race). Why I wrote the alternate history this way is the subject of a different post.
I had originally intended that Andevai be that embodiment of privilege and status, and in many ways he is. To Cat’s eyes, at the beginning of their acquaintance, he certainly seems to be and acts as a man of the highest status and power, and he definitely makes sure everyone knows who and what he is. In most ways, outside of the mage House, he is that man. But in their journey together she discovers that his story is far more complicated, and that his status, like hers, is provisional where it matters most.
As it happens, the person in the Spiritwalker books in whom the highest level of privilege and status is embodied is the mansa of Four Moons House. He is a man who was born and raised knowing that he can speak without being spoken to first, that he is the equal of any man and the superior to all except the emperor of Rome, the other mansas of the other mage Houses, and the most powerful of the Celtic princes. He is a man who can casually use the first name of any man or woman he meets, if he wishes to, while being addressed solely by his title by all but a handful of people.
It is not until I, as the writer, met the mansa in the text that I could fully understand how Andevai was caught out on this difficult terrain between his humble place of birth and his assumed place of power.
Andevai’s character unfolded even more in book two, in Expedition, where his status as a cold mage was disdained and his skill as a carpenter–skills seen as low-born in the mage House–were respected and valued. In Expedition, Andevai turned out to be far more comfortable and at ease than he had ever been in Europa. This other and more appealing side of his character could then be revealed, although I had to rewrite a lot of scenes as I figured out exactly how that deepest and most essential and instinctive level of his personality would manifest in these new circumstances. Coming to understanding him in both venues–the arrogant cold mage and the still vain and proud but far more personable carpenter–made his character finally wholly fall into place.
If there is one thing I’ve learned over writing my many books, it is that if I am patient, and if I leave myself open to change, even my most difficult and secretive characters will reveal themselves to me in time. Some, like Cat, fall pretty much fully formed into my lap: Her voice was strong and distinctive from the start, and she really does mostly wear her emotions on her sleeve. But others I need patience to find. In the end, both sorts of characters are a delight to bring to life.
Thank you for sharing this Kate. I love Vai, he’s so fun to read.
I also take comfort in hearing that a writer of your experience still sometimes has to wait for a character to reveal himself, or is surprised when a character turns out to be someone other than you thought. This just happened to me, and because I’m so new to writing, I felt it was a lack of preparation on my part. Perhaps, I just need to be patient, as you say, and let him have his words…
Thanks again, I’ve got June 25th marked on my calendar for Cold Steel!
Wonderful treatise! Yes indeed … cultivating the patience to let things happen and unfold and reveal is crucial. And often so hard to achieve when deadlines are looming. You’ve done a lovely job with Andevai, right to the end. So very impressed.
Thanks for sharing this, Kate. This illuminates nicely how a character can evolve and change even as you conceive of him, into something similar but distinctly different than the original.
I love reading commentary, so thank you very much for sharing this with us! Vai is a wonderfully complex character and I love reading about him. As someone new to writing it scares me when my characters change and don’t “follow the plan”, so it’s comforting to hear that it’s not something to be afraid of. Thanks again, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the Monday posts.
AJ, this always happens to me. Not with every character, I mean, but in every book. There is always someone, and I think for my part it is more figuring out who I think I know that I’m wrong about. Some writers do, I think, prepare extensively before they start the actual writing, and that is fine, but every writer will have a different method of working, and any given character and book will have differences as well. So — yes — be patient!
Patience is not my strong suit.
Oddly, he was easy to write in book 3 . . .
Thank you, Paul
My feeling is that (for me, anyway) there needs to be room for change. Gosh, that’s an entire post on its own, isn’t it? Sometimes I start writing a character and only slowly do I realize that my own preconceptions are limiting that character’s personality. If I can reach past that, then usually the character gets more interesting.
I took a strong dislike to Vai in his first appearance due to the casual way he mistreats Cat. Seeing his insecurity made him much more human to me, and seeing his prickliness towards others made me realize that he was actually preemptively defending himself from her. I found it a more complex, believable, and likable characterization than one-note arrogance, so I’m glad you realized there was more to him than meets the eye.
Oh, good. This is exactly the effect I was hoping for, and one which I wasn’t able to bring across for every reader. It was a challenge for me as a writer partly because he is a jerk and I would hope that people ought to dislike that aspect of him, and also because I had to try to do all this through Cat’s point of view — that is, allow readers to see things that she can’t yet.
I had the same reaction to Vai at first. Now I have a crush on him. 😉
I had something similar happen to me with a character this morning; yesterday I was absolutely certain he was going to kill someone, and this morning, he walked out the door instead. WHAT?! But that one action caused things to fall into place that in ways that will make the final chapters more powerful. I’m excited that my characters are improving my story for me!
Darn, scratch that first “that.”
Isn’t that a weird element of writing, when the conscious plan you-the-writer have made suddenly slips away under the force of something–hard to explain the process–that means you-the-writer change your mind about what was going to happen?
I have often started in writing confrontational conversations between two or three characters with a really clear idea of how the conversation was going to go and where it was going to end up, only to have it veer sharply in a different direction. In almost all cases, the new direction turns out being stronger narratively than the original.
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That happens to me a lot.
I love it when you talk about your characters. It both confirms my own perceptions and adds to my understanding.