Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?”

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"May I please speak with Maddy Shaw?"

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 1. You can read the previous installments here.

In the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a helpful distinction between two kinds of series characters. The first, or what he calls the “deliberate” creation, is conceived explicitly to carry more than one novel, and the author designs him with that role in mind:

They will have to have some kind of trademark. The hero will be different. Thus traits of difference are accumulated, selected not for the way they grow out of the character but solely because nobody else has yet thought of them…So the deliberate hero is jumbled into being…Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…and carries a…a swordstick? No, too ordinary; what about a blow-pipe? And he knows the Bible by heart, huh?

The other sort of character, the “accidental” kind, is created for the needs of a particular book, and he or she often has traits that you’d never include if you were thinking in terms of a series. “The book itself demands a detective,” Dickinson writes, “and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs. He may turn out a very odd creature, but all his oddnesses are expressions of what he is like inside.”

It’s the second kind of character who often ends up being the most interesting to read about, but also the most problematic to write. When the time comes to plug an accidental protagonist into a new story, the author often finds that he’s inherited a set of characteristics or a backstory that would never have been there if he were starting from scratch. Yet it’s often those instrumental, pragmatic touches, which arose in the first place because a different story demanded it, that push the plot in productive directions. It becomes another creative constraint, which is always a good thing, and it generates ideas precisely because it limits the writer’s options. In the case of my own novels, I’ve noted before that the decision to make Rachel Wolfe a Mormon, which ended up being central to the last two books of the series, was a random inspiration designed to fill out her character a bit: it was a late interpolation into The Icon Thief, and according to my notes, I seem to have briefly considered making her South Asian instead—an idea that dimly prefigures Maya Asthana, who evolved in crazy ways of her own. And I don’t think that Wolfe would have turned out half as interesting if I’d coolly constructed her with an eye to subsequent novels.

"Her life was a shambles..."

This is even more true of Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief, who was unexpectedly recruited for a similarly central role in Eternal Empire. If anything, her case is even more complicated: as the lead character in the first novel, she arrives with a lot of history and emotional baggage, all of which had to be acknowledged in the last installment without overwhelming readers who were encountering her for the first time. With Wolfe, I could take the few scraps of information I had and spin them into something largely new, while Maddy existed in a particular form that had been explored for hundreds of pages. The challenge of Eternal Empire, especially in its opening sections, consisted of reintroducing her, grounding her in a new situation, and then yanking her out of it. And it was especially difficult because Maddy isn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see in more than one suspense novel. A law enforcement officer like Wolfe will take on many cases in the course of her career; even a criminal like Ilya lives the kind of life that consistently courts danger. Maddy is a fairly ordinary young woman who, by the end of the first book, wants nothing more than to keep her head down, and to get her back into the story, her past had to come back to haunt her.

As a result, the opening chapter of Eternal Empire has to do about five different things at once, and on reading it over again, I think it pulls it all off pretty well. For reasons of plot, I needed Maddy in London, and the idea that she’d be working in the art world under a fake name seemed like a fairly logical step. (The name she takes, Maddy Shaw, is a reference to the pseudonym that T.E. Lawrence assumed when he tried to keep a low profile after the war.) The events described in the prologue provided a convenient way of blowing her cover, leaving her at a low point personally, professionally, and financially, and therefore receptive to the outrageous offer that Powell is about to make. And much of the subsequent plot, especially in the first half, was designed to make her entry point into the story—working as an art advisor to a Russian oligarch, while secretly gathering information about his financial activities—marginally plausible. It all required me to think a lot harder, and make things more difficult for myself, than if I’d started with a new character, and it influenced the overall shape of the novel in countless ways. Maddy, like the novel itself, is a very odd creature. And both she and it are more interesting, at least to my eyes, than they would have been otherwise…

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2014 at 9:52 am

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