Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“I’m sure he had no trouble remembering you…”

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"A few moments earlier..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One reason I’m so fascinated by the challenges of episodic television is the fact that I recently found myself writing what amounted to a series of my own. The Icon Thief was conceived as a standalone novel, and the possibility of writing a sequel never crossed my mind until it was raised by my publisher, which put me in a position analogous to that of a showrunner tasked with shepherding a series through an extended run of seasons. Some television shows, like Mad Men, reveal a novelistic sense of storytelling that remains shapely for years; others, like Downton Abbey, flame out early on. Most common of all is a series that falls somewhere in the middle, with the writers and producers trying to keep the underlying material fresh while dealing with the vagaries of television production. As a novelist, I don’t need to worry about cast departures or network notes, and the fact that my own series is conceived as a trilogy allows me to avoid some of the pitfalls faced by a show with no clear ending. All the same, I’d like to think that it’s given me a renewed appreciation for the surprises that an extended narrative can encounter.

Take the issue of the breakout character. This is a character, originally conceived as a minor part, that unexpectedly expands into a role of much greater importance, to the point where he or she often takes over the entire series. You can’t plan this kind of thing, and shows that come to structure themselves around a supporting character’s popularity, like Happy Days, are generally transformed beyond recognition. It’s usually the audience who latches on to a character like this, but he or she can also be one who seizes the creator’s imagination. This is more often the case in novels, which don’t benefit—if that’s the right word—from the continuous ratings feedback that a television series receives. And while the increased focus given to a breakout character on television can feel like pandering, in fiction, it’s more often a case of the author’s organic excitement taking hold, which is always thrilling. Most writers try to make their lead characters as interesting as possible from page one, and occasionally the strain shows. By contrast, when a character slowly grows in interest and importance, the result usually takes even the author by surprise.

"I'm sure he had no trouble remembering you..."

The breakout character in my own work is clearly Rachel Wolfe. As I’ve noted before, Wolfe originated as a plot convenience, to play the role of Watson to Powell’s Holmes, and in the original outline, she wasn’t even a woman. I didn’t know she was a Mormon until the rewrite—after briefly toying with the idea of making her South Asian—and even in the book as it currently exists, she’s clearly a secondary character. Yet she stuck in my mind, and it’s only now, as I’m making the final changes to the third book in which she appears, that I can begin to figure out why. In a series where I’ve done my best to create flawed, complicated characters, and in which the moral lines aren’t always clearly drawn, Wolfe represents virtue and courage. Needless to say, this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if I’d conceived her from the start as my answer to Eliot Ness. She was simply a character who demanded to be treated as a hero in a series that was more interested in ambiguity. And a big part of why I enjoy writing her so much is that I’ve been forced to work within the constraints I chose for her almost at random, more than four years ago.

Chapter 34 of The Icon Thief provides some tantalizing hints of the qualities that I developed more fully in City of Exiles. At first glance, it’s a transitional chapter, with Powell and Wolfe conducting surveillance on the exchange inside the courthouse. As they wait for the principal parties to arrive, I take the opportunity to include some exposition that didn’t fit anywhere else—in fact, their discussion here is pieced together from several other conversations that originally took place in different chapters. When I read this chapter over again today, however, I’m more struck by what’s happening between the lines, as Wolfe signals to Powell to remove his earpiece so they can have a private conversation. Wolfe, it seems, has been busy: she’s looked into the background of Maddy’s art fund and obtained crucial information from a partner at a law firm, an occasional instructor at Quantico, who “loves to sound off to his former students, especially the girls.” Powell responds: “I’m sure he had no trouble remembering you.”  And while I didn’t think much of that line when I wrote it, it’s only today, two novels later, that I really understand what he meant…

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

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