Backstage Character Pass — Rayner Kolston

With the release of The Timeseer’s Gambit a solid month behind us, and, hopefully, most of my readers having had a chance to dig in and discover Chris and Olivia’s new adventure, I’m ready to start talking about the book here on my blog! I’ve got so much to say! But first up, the Backstage Character Pass series is looking incomplete.

How about those characters who solidified their position in the main cast a little later than the others?

Rayner Kolston was what I refer to in my notes as a “mystery character” in the first book. What that means is that, like Evelyn val Daren, Grandmother Eugenia, and Elisabeth Kingsley, he existed in the story primarily as a potential suspect and a source of investigative information for Olivia’s sleuthing. He established the val Daren’s family’s debts and acted as a slightly more reliable outside perspective on the Duke’s life. In the earliest outlines, this was Kolston’s entire role in the series, and he would disappear in future books once the case was solved.

But as I outlined his role and, eventually, got around to actually sketching out his scenes with Olivia, I found that I… actually really liked the guy. He provided something new and unique to the cast, and there was a role I could see him playing in future books. And I jumped on it, because the truth is, he’s just a lot of fun to write!

While most of the cast of these books are relatively respectable and on the right side of the law, Kolston is most definitely not. Chris often describes him like a rodent or an insect, and it’s a pretty apt comparison. Kolston scuttles around the edges of things, exploits the economic crisis to make his own personal fortune, and collects nuggets of information to sell to the highest bidder.

All of those traits are surprisingly useful. As you can see in The Timeseer’s Gambit, Kolston provides a window into the darker sides of Darrington city. He’s a contact Chris and Olivia can use to scrape the underbelly, which makes him a great character to have around for the mystery-solving aspects of the plot. He’s also great for when they need something untoward done and don’t want to or can’t do it themselves. In TTG, this all leads to Chris making a devil’s bargain with Kolston that will definitely come back in later books. And, of course, Kolston’s presence helps remind us of how grimy Darrington is getting as it loses more and more of its prestige and sinks deeper into a depression.

But I don’t think any of that is Kolston’s real purpose in the story. The true appeal of having him in the mix, for me, is the conflict he brings to Olivia and Chris.

I really wanted to show Olivia as a sexually confidant woman who doesn’t care about societal expectations. I also wanted to make it clear that she isn’t sexually attracted to Chris by demonstrating how she acts when she is interested in someone. But I didn’t want to clutter my already large cast by adding a character specifically for this purpose. However, I realized writing their first scene together in TDA that damn… she really digs on Kolston. He’s clever, willing to flirt shamelessly, and can actually keep up with her.

Not to mention, he’s just a good-looking guy!

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I’ve come to realize that my biggest inspiration for Kolston is the minor character “Badger” from the television series Firefly. Badger only has about thirty lines in the whole series, but I guess he made an impression on me!

Does that surprise you? After all, he’s always described as being sleazy, greasy, and rat-like. But remember… you’re seeing Kolston from Chris’s point of view, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Chris can’t see past what Kolston is: a carrion eater who lives in the sweaty buttcrack of polite society. But what Olivia sees is all rakish good looks and slick charm.

Kolston also helps remind both Chris and you all reading that Olivia’s moral compass is… crooked. She genuinely believes that he committed a horrible murder in cold blood and got away with it. It just doesn’t bother her. After all, she didn’t know the victim, it was just business, and legally, he’s been cleared. As Olivia starts opening up more to Chris and showing her softer sides, I like to keep it fresh in everyone’s mind that she hasn’t stopped being what she is.

As for Kolston himself? What he wants, what he values, what he loves, where his loyalties lie? Does he have hidden depths, or is he as petty and small-minded as he seems? Does he sincerely care about Olivia, or would he sell her out for a fiver? Is he bad or good or just pragmatic? I know the answers to those questions, but they’re definitely obfuscated on purpose! You’re just going to have to keep reading and find out. Maybe he’ll end up surprising you… and maybe not.

Do you like him? Or does he make your skin crawl? Do you think Olivia deserves better, or are they perfect for each other? Let me know what you think!

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant Backstage Character Pass Series:
Chris
Olivia
Maris
Rosemary
Rachel
Will

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Backstage Character Pass — Rachel Albany

[This Backstage Character Pass contains some very minor SPOILERS for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant! Read at your own risk.]

No character deviated more from their original plan than Rachel Albany.

I’ve written about how The Deathsniffer’s Assistant originally started as a NaNoWriMo side project without an outline that I later realized had some potential. What I haven’t talked about is how much of the book changed between those mile markers. While I picked it back up and continued writing more or less where I left off, the very fabric and intent of the novel had changed.

The original novel didn’t have the Floating Castle.

Michael and Julia Buckley had been killed in a carriage accident. There was no larger plot, no political landscape, no depression, and no conspiracy. It was just the val Daren murder.

While I left the novel fallow, those ideas began to sprout and bloom. The murders themselves weren’t enough to hold up the book. I didn’t want to just tell murder mysteries in a fantasy setting. I wanted something bigger. Parents dying in a silly accident didn’t provide my narrator enough baggage or motivation, and with no overarching mystery for the main characters to solve, the series lacked a mission statement.

This is when the Floating Castle was born.

The details of that story are for another time. But the birth of the Floating Castle was also the birth of the Miss Albany who reached the presses.

I immediately knew that I needed a character representing the reformist point of view. An important part of making a conflict seem human is personifying it. I needed someone the audience respected and trusted to voice the views of the reformist camp – and more importantly, to trust the reformist leader, Dr. Livingstone. A major plot point hinged on the audience believing the doctor was a good man, and a character who could grandfather him into the story was necessary.

Even from the first draft, the Miss Albany character existed. But she was different, a pinched older woman, severe and intense with a completely different backstory. I didn’t want to create a new character, so I decided to have Miss Albany perform double duty.

And then I thought – well, since we’re already tinkering, why not triple duty?

See, I knew from moment one that I wanted Chris and Olivia to have an extremely intimate relationship that readers would see flourish over time. I also knew that I wanted absolutely no romantic connection between them. Their relationship would have to be completely platonic. The age difference, power difference, and fundamental personality conflicts between them was a part of that, but it was more. I wanted to explore how platonic relationships can be as meaningful and as important as romantic ones. I wanted to show a sexually compatible man and woman forming a deep connection without sex being an aspect of it. And, most importantly, I wanted Olivia to never become subservient – in any way – to Chris or Chris’s development.

I had to remove all risk of subtext, make it obvious to the reader that there was no romantic attraction between the Deathsniffer and her assistant. And the easiest way to do that is to show how they act around someone they are attracted to.

So: Rachel.

Three separate character ideas became one complete character: a governess for Rosemary, a romantic interest for Christopher, and a reformist sympathizer for the audience. She had to be someone Rosemary would initially resent, later respect, and eventually love. She had to be someone Chris would want, but also someone who would challenge his preconceptions. And she had to be implicitly trustworthy: forthright, stubborn and strong-willed.

Rachel became one of the most vital characters to the series as a result of this compound mission statement. She also became the most challenging to write. A single character pulling triple duty is economical writing, but it’s also tough. Rachel had to be playing all three roles in equal measure while still pursuing her own personal agenda. Finding the balance between her three roles in the story and her agency was tough, and no character has undergone more revisions in either book than Rachel.

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MTWX’s gorgeous art shows the different faces of Rachel Albany.

The most important piece of advice I always want to give new writers is that they shouldn’t be so afraid of a first draft. I see so many writers struggle with fear of starting. And I want to tell them all that first draft is so mutable. (I talk about this a lot in my Getting Out of the Labyrinth series, especially Writing Part 1 and Writing Part 2.) Your book is going to change so much! And that’s not only fine, it’s awesome. Nothing is more inspiring than the knowledge that your work can still grow and adapt as you write. No word you write is written in stone. And I think Rachel is a great example of how much change can happen and how positive it can be!

I love all of my characters, and appreciation for any of them makes my day. But it’s curious. If I had to pick a favourite, it wouldn’t be Rachel. And yet, when someone tells me that she’s their favourite, nothing else makes me happier. Rachel is such a challenging character. Writing her is never effortless. I constantly have to work on juggling so many things while she’s onscreen. So when I hear that she really worked for someone, it’s crazy rewarding!

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rachel more relaxed and comfortable in her position as Rosemary’s nanny. She and Chris have gotten to know one another better and their dynamic has subtly changed. You’re also going to learn quite a bit more about her infamous brother, the mysterious Garrett Albany you heard so much about in the first book. Look forward to it!

Have any comments, questions, or just something to say about Miss Rachel Albany? Let me know! I love hearing from my fans.

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia
Maris
Rosemary

Backstage Character Pass — Rosemary Buckley

Ah, Rosemary.

All my characters seem to be polarizing except for her. Depending on who is talking, Olivia can be an empowering riot or an unreadable monster. Chris can be a well written beta male or a grating self-congratulatory dandy. Rosemary, though? There is a very clear consensus on Rosemary.

She’s a spoiled brat.

rosemary's aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.
rosemary’s aesthetic was inspired greatly by victorian porcelain dolls.

Some hate Chris for being a terrible parental figure and letting her get to this point. Some skip right over Chris and get down to hating Rosie herself. In fact, there’s only one reader I can think of who really, really likes Rosemary – and I’ll get to him later.

First, I want to talk about the origin of the character. I said in my Maris backstage pass that except for Chris and Olivia, every major character in the book either joined the cast halfway through or deviated wildly from their original sketch. Rosemary is in the latter category. When I conceptualized the character, I had something a little more… delicate in mind. Initially named Rosaline, Chris’s gifted sister was of the ethereal waif archetype, an odd and spiritual eight-year-old girl, dreamy and fey and strange. She lived more on the elemental plane than in the real world and needed protecting from her own nature as much as from the outside forces closing in around her.

I tried to write that character. And there was really no moment when the dainty Rosaline became the precocious Rosemary. It was just that the character I was trying to write just refused to stick.

Rosaline would not go down on paper. She kept developing an attitude and getting older. Her wispy blonde curls wouldn’t become a solid image in my mind, and I kept having visions of an imperious little devil-child with jet black bouncing curls and a face like a porcelain doll.

There was also the issue of agency. Rosaline sat wrong with me. She had no real will of her own, and was so ghostly and sweet that no conflict would arise between her and Chris. Chris could handle Rosaline in a way that he can’t handle Rosemary, and it was just too easy. Becoming a parent when you’re only fifteen shouldn’t be easy. I wanted Chris to make mistake and I wanted his sister to be an entity who exerted her own will on the story – and on Chris himself.

So I started to write something more comfortable for me.

When my own younger sister was five years old, she demanded that the husky nine-year-old  boy who lived down the street get out of “her”chair. When he didn’t immediately obey, she grabbed him by his shirt, threw him onto the floor, and climbed up in his place, smiling happily. He ran all the way home crying.

They say to “write what you know,” don’t they?

I know what it’s like to have a little sister who’s a handful and a half. My own little Rosemary was my closest companion and the constant bane of my existence. We were the best of friends and she drove me crazy. To me, that’s what little sisters are. Strong-willed, stubborn little monsters who want everything, think they deserve even more, and make you love them so much it hurts even while you want to strangle them. I couldn’t conceptualize a little sister like Rosaline. So Rosaline became Rosemary.

Oh, and that one lone reader who adores little Rosie?

That would be our dad.

Rosemary isn’t just an expy of my sister, of course. They’re very different people. For instance: when people call Rosie a spoiled brat, they’re right. She is, from her head to her toes. She’s what Chris has made her into. Unlike my own sister, who I only had to take care for occasional nightmarish babysitting sessions, Rosemary was essentially raised by a teenage boy. Chris loves her so much it hurts, but he’s never had any how to handle her. He’s done the best he can, but she’d be a hard child for even two experienced and devoted adults to raise. Chris’s love for Rosie and his desire to keep her pliant led to him giving her everything she wanted. Never good parenting strategy. Fernand’s firmer hand only went so far when he was willing to cede to Chris himself.

Rosemary is a tough character to write – harder than Rosaline would have been. None of my characters are designed for likeability, but Rosie takes that to an extreme. And yet, for the story to work, I needed readers to buy Chris’s love for her. I needed them to see how much he loved her and how much she could be hurt by the factions lining up to use her. I needed them to see that Chris is a terrible parental figure while also respecting all he’s given up and how hard he’s tried. It’s really tough to evoke all these conflicting reactions, especially on a character carrying so much of the narrator’s motivations on her shoulders.

But I think Rosemary is a more rewarding character in the long run. It’s easy to make readers care about a cherubic, spiritual little waif. The reason that character is so overused in fantasy is because she’s easy. But I’ve always love young female characters like Malta Vestrit of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books, or Sansa Stark from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: girls who are too “difficult,” too spoiled, too spirited. Those characters go on to grow and change and make a reader think twice about dismissing them. I’m hoping Rosemary will succeed in the same way.

In The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll get to see Rosemary taking those first steps toward increased maturity. She’s got a long road ahead of her, but I hope in the end she’ll have been worth it.

Let me know what you think of Rosemary in the comments!

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia
Maris

Backstage Character Pass — Maris Dawson

Chris and Olivia are the only two characters who were both planned to be in the book and came out the way they were initially planned. Everyone else either joined the cast later on, or deviated wildly from their original concept.

Officer Maris Dawson is one of the former.

There’s exactly one reason that Maris broke into the book. While finishing up my outline and making sure it was going to work – this was once I already had over ten thousand words written! – I came to an unfortunate realization: The Deathsniffer’s Assistant didn’t pass the Bechdel test.

The test is a simple bit of feminist critical theory that started as a joke by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the 1980s. It has three criteria. In order to pass, a piece of media has to have:

1. At least two female characters,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.

Passing Bechdel doesn’t mean that something is feminist. And failing doesn’t mean that something is bad. But it’s a very low bar to set and it’s shocking just how few movies, books, video games, and so forth actually pass it.

It didn’t seem possible that I could fail the test. I strongly identify as a feminist and work hard to ensure my female characters are diverse, interesting, and have their own agendas. Considerably more of my cast is female than male! But as I went through the list of characters in my first book and compared them against the outline, I came to a pretty startling realization.

Rosemary, Evelyn and Analaea val Daren, and Vanessa Caldwell all interacted at least once with Olivia. But each time, they were discussing a man. The murder victim in the first book is male, and Olivia’s interactions with these characters were either about him or Christopher. Rachel and Rosemary’s interaction all happens offscreen and is communicated to Chris by one or the other. Somehow, while I had passed the first two qualifiers with flying colours, I’d utterly failed the third. It became obvious that I was going to need to add another female character, someone with a more personal relationship to one of my leads, if I was going to pass the test.

tumblr_nudthe1rlL1urkoeko1_1280I identified a bit of world-building I’d glossed over. I’d decided early on that investigators were beholden to the police, who used them as independent contractors and outsourced their cases. The sudden permission to create another character let me explore that a bit, and I decided that Olivia needed a supervisor.

And then Maris kind of just… happened. The moment I realized that she should exist, she did exist. A stern, tough, handsome redhead, burly and indelicate and dry. Faux-Scottish with a rough brogue, contrasting Olivia’s sharp-tongued English way of speaking. Someone who would have no tolerance for Olivia’s bullshit, but who Olivia would be incredibly fond of. Someone to show the reader – and Chris – that Olivia did care about some things other than herself, that in her own way, she had formed attachments to the world she inhabited.

Everything about Maris snapped into focus in a split second, and she quickly wound herself in through all the empty spaces the book had. She became absolutely necessary to the story. She provided a little window into Olivia’s life pre-Chris, and provided the context for a major subplot in the first book, the minor mystery of Constance. She allowed me to have another likable, sympathetic character with traditionalist leanings, to make the deck seem less stacked in favour of the reformists. And, as I originally planned, she let me pass Bechdel.

Whenever I read sections where she and Olivia rib one another, ask about each other’s personal lives, or just complain about work, I smile to myself. It humanizes Olivia a bit, adds texture to her life, and makes her feel like she existed before Chris met her. All that aside, Maris has become a central part of the series as a whole and plays an increasingly major role in future books. Passing Bechdel actually did make my book stronger.

I see a sentiment online a lot. “Diversity shouldn’t be added for the sake of adding it.” And to them I say: why not? Maris is one of my most popular and favourite characters, and she wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t trying to check those boxes. If an element doesn’t work, by all means, massage or cut it. That’s just good writing. But fantastic characters and plotlines might be hiding behind that diversity barrier. You just need to be willing to look.

Maris is at her most professional in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, but in The Timeseer’s Gambit, you’ll see her in a much more personal context and learn a bit about who she is when she isn’t Officer Dawson!

Other Backstage Character Passes:
Chris
Olivia